Last fall, when President Donald Trump headed to Capitol Hill for the Senate Republican lunch, he was feuding with the powerful chair of the foreign relations panel and tweeted that the man couldn’t get elected dog catcher.
On Tuesday, he dropped in on the weekly GOP lunch entangled in a controversy over an aide’s comment disparaging ailing GOP Sen. John McCain. At least one attendee said the McCain flap never came up, but several of the GOP leaders have said it’s past time for an apology from the White House.
“The smart thing to do would have been five days ago to just nip it in the bud and come out and apologize for it,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
Trump’s Capitol Hill lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans comes as the White House and its GOP allies are trying to coalesce around a political message ahead of the midterm elections. Also on the agenda is the White House push to get Senate approval on Trump’s nominee for CIA director, as well as Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea.
But much like when Trump was headed to the GOP Senate lunch to talk policy in October 2017, the White House agenda was eclipsed by another story.
During a closed-door meeting last week White House communications aide Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain’s opposition to the CIA nominee by saying of the Arizona Republican: “He’s dying anyway.” The 81-year-old McCain was diagnosed in July with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Sadler has apologized to the McCain family privately, but McCain’s daughter has asked for a public apology. The White House, which has appeared more focused on the fact the leak took place than its substance, has said it has dealt with the matter internally — but has refused to say how.
In a tweet Monday, Trump said “so-called leaks” were a “massive over exaggeration” but added: “With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”
The issue has left many senators unsettled. Several of McCain’s long-time colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and former Vice President Joe Biden, have traveled to Arizona to visit the ailing senator.
The “person who said that should apologize and apologize publicly,” McConnell said Tuesday of Sadler.
When Trump attended the October Senate GOP luncheon, he was locked into a public feud with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Earlier that month, Corker had accused the president of intentionally being divisive and untruthful, and comparing the White House to an “adult day care center.”
The morning of the luncheon, Trump tweeted that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee.”
Bob Corker, who helped President O give us the bad Iran Deal & couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee, is now fighting Tax Cuts….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2017
The major issue at the time was tax legislation, which Trump and Republicans needed to pass after failing to rally behind a comprehensive health care bill. The tax bill was ultimately successful, despite the Trump-Corker diversion. Corker has said he will not seek re-election this fall.
The following month, Trump lunched with GOP senators at the Capitol and declared it a “love fest,” reserving his wrath for Democrats on a spending bill.
On Tuesday, Corker said that none of the senators raised the McCain issue.
“That’s not what we do in these meetings,” he said. “No one would have brought up something like that.”
Republicans are increasingly relying on the president to help protect the GOP’s slim 51-49 majority in the Senate this fall.