By Jenna Lifhits
Top Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers offered heartfelt tributes to John McCain Tuesday night at the International Republican Institute’s annual freedom dinner, striking a marked contrast to the continued controversy facing the White House over its handling of a crude closed-door joke about the Arizona senator.
“Tonight, there is a man standing here right beside me, and you and I can see him in our mind’s eye,” said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the Freedom Award recipients. “He’s a giant, in my mind, of American public life. He leads steadfastly, nothing can diminish him, he steadfastly represents the best of our country.”
After McCain, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer in Arizona, came out in opposition of CIA nominee Gina Haspel last week, The Hill reported that White House aide Kelly Sadler described his opposition as inconsequential because “he’s dying anyway.” The leaked remark drew nearly a week’s worth of bipartisan condemnation, with Republican senators questioning why neither Sadler nor the White House apologized publicly.
Notably, however, the incident did not come up during a GOP lunch with the president Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the lunch, “the person who said that should apologize and should apologize publicly.”
The tenor of Tuesday’s IRI event offered a stark contrast to the firestorm surrounding the White House. McCain, the longtime chairman of IRI, was unable to make it to the D.C. dinner. But his presence loomed large.
“His influence today is so deeply felt in this capital, as it is in villages and refugee camps … and places all around the world. We need to look no further than his work as an international statesman to see that he can surmount any obstacle,” Mattis said, later adding, “Everything I love about America is resident in this man, who denied cynicism and victimhood to be a role model for so many of us.”
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham described his best friend McCain as “a hopeless romantic when it comes to freedom.” Graham introduced Mattis on Tuesday night. He said that the defense secretary had called McCain and briefed him ahead of the president’s announcement last week that he would withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“He said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I want to let you know the president has decided to withdraw from the deal. I think it was a sound decision, but he wanted me to tell you, and I wanted you to know it before anybody else, because nobody respects you more than I do,’” Graham said. “I cannot tell you. Whatever medicine he’s on, nothing could replace that phone call.”
United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who alongside Mattis received a Freedom Award Tuesday, described the six-term senator as a bastion of courage and spoke directly to his son Jimmy, who had spoken earlier in the event.
“You should know that your dad is in our hearts tonight,” she said. “John McCain has shown multiple generations of Americans what it means to be a true patriot, and all of us are in his debt.”
“He is not only a patriot,” Haley added, recalling her own experience as the wife of a combat veteran. “His courage, his service, but his ability to forever be America’s hero is what keeps so many military families going.”Top