Trump Loses Top GOP Adversary in McCain as Probes Edge Closer

(Bloomberg) -- John McCain’s death not only silences one of the most powerful Republican voices in Washington, it relieves Donald Trump of the mightiest adversary within his own party, just as the president’s legal and political jeopardy reaches a high-water mark.

Among congressional Republicans, the Arizona senator was Trump’s most potent critic, willing to oppose the president even when it shook Capitol Hill.

McCain, notably, cast the deciding vote to kill Trump’s effort to repeal Obamacare in 2017, earning biting scorn from the president. His response to Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in July was among the harshest from either party. But his death removes a potential counterweight as the president contemplates responses to prosecutors in Washington and New York who are closing in on his inner circle.

In a farewell statement from McCain read by a family spokesman on Monday, he indirectly criticized Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico and more broadly faulted the current state of politics. He told Americans not to “despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America.”

“We confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” he said. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, didn’t have an obvious answer on Sunday when asked who might become the new conscience of the Senate.

“I’m not sure there’s one person that’s going to grab the banner and move forward,” Durbin said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “John stood out from so many of us because of his extraordinary service to our country.”

Investigations Advance

McCain died on Saturday at age 81 and will be buried Sept. 2 at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery after laying in state at the capitols in both Arizona and Washington. The president has less to fear from other Republicans in Congress. Those who don’t fully support Trump, or at least adopt a strategic silence toward his actions, must worry about being replaced by someone who will, given the president’s overwhelming popularity among GOP voters. 

While memorials and remembrances for McCain are sure to capture much of the political media’s attention this week, Trump can expect no actual reprieve from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s collaboration with Russia or from a probe by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York into Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer.

The senator died just days after Trump experienced one of the worst developments of his presidency. On Tuesday, a jury found Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, guilty of eight felony tax- and bank-fraud charges on Aug. 21. Cohen agreed on the same day to plead guilty to eight felonies, including violations of campaign finance law that he said, under oath, were directed by Trump.

Later in the week, reports surfaced that two people close to Trump -- Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and David Pecker, the chief executive officer of American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer -- had agreed to talk to prosecutors in the Cohen case in exchange for immunity. The two men know much about Trump’s business and personal lives, though their agreements with prosecutors may limit the scope of any testimony.

Long Animus

Trump and McCain got off on a bad foot from the start of the president’s campaign, when in July 2015 Trump derided the most renowned element of the senator’s biography -- his years-long captivity and torture during the Vietnam War. McCain was only a war hero “because he was captured,” Trump famously declared at a conservative conference, adding “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump, 72, received several medical deferments to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam era. He never publicly apologize for the remarks and endured a steady drumbeat of criticism from McCain -- who eventually un-endorsed Trump -- that continued into the Oval Office.

Even as McCain battled an aggressive form of brain cancer, Trump regularly blamed him for derailing Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. “I had Obamacare done except one guy at 2 o’clock in the morning went in and said, he went thumbs down,” Trump said at a rally earlier this month.

McCain, in turn, never sugar-coated his criticism of the president. When Trump seemed to accept Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 presidential election over the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies at their summit in Helsinki, McCain said it represented “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” and that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a statement at the time.

Trump Silence

The animus between Trump and McCain didn’t abate even as the senator approached death. Trump was silent after McCain’s family announced last week he had stopped curative treatment for his cancer. There was no official White House statement after McCain’s death on Saturday -- only a two-sentence tweet from the president expressing sympathy for the senator’s family without recognizing the man himself.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump blocked the release of a fuller statement that had been prepared in advance. Spokespeople for the White House didn’t respond to inquiries about the report.

First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and aides including Kellyanne Conway issued their own statements praising McCain. Two former presidents -- Barack Obama and George W. Bush -- are preparing to deliver remarks at the senator’s funeral, but Trump hasn’t scheduled any events related to McCain and spent Sunday at his golf course in northern Virginia, commenting on the economy and stock market on Twitter.

Republican Fears

Most Republicans avoid any whiff of opposition to the president because of his strong support among GOP voters. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of registered voters released on Sunday, 90 percent of Republicans said they approved of the president’s job performance. The survey was taken after Cohen implicated the president in a crime and Manafort was found guilty.

Trump’s three foremost remaining Republican critics are likely Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Corker and Flake are retiring, while Sasse, 46, lacks the gravitas of McCain and reliably votes for Trump’s priorities, including the Obamacare repeal McCain helped to defeat.

McCain expected the vacuum left by his absence would be filled, Flake said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. He said McCain expressed hope in February that other Republicans would put country before party, as he believed he had done.

“So he was optimistic there, but it’s tough to see right now how that’s going to happen,” Flake said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.