WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
Now Trump is headed to the weekly GOP lunch embroiled in a controversy over an aide’s comment disparaging ailing GOP Sen. John McCain, and the Senate GOP leadership is telling Trump 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.
“I told him we miss him,” McConnell said in a Senate speech late Monday. “I was confident I was speaking for everybody in the Senate in conveying our deepest respects for him and all he’s done for the county in his extraordinary life.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, who has disagreed with McCain in the past on policy issues, was blunt: “The person who said it should apologize. It’s totally inappropriate,” he told The Associated Press.
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.”
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.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said Trump would be focused Tuesday on getting his “team in place, particularly Gina Haspel, who we believe should be confirmed as the next CIA Director.”
“This is an individual who’s had over three decades of exemplary service and experience with the CIA. And we hope that the Senate takes it upon themselves to confirm here,” he said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said the senators look forward to talking Tuesday about the “tax cuts and historic economic growth here at home, and the opportunity for peace on the Korean Peninsula that lies ahead.”
Republicans are increasingly relying on the president to help protect the GOP’s slim 51-49 majority in the Senate this fall.