As Senators returned to Washington this week with a newly simmering trade deal afoot, many paused on Monday to remember Sen. John McCain, with some Republicans seemingly exhausted by how the White House has handled their former colleague’s passing, while others remained silent on the controversy.
Following McCain’s death on Saturday, the White House flags were initially lowered to half-staff in remembrance of the decorated Vietnam War POW but were then brought back up a day later. And, until Monday, no official statement had been issued by President Donald Trump, with reports suggesting he had swatted down a statement praising his former rival’s heroism.
“I certainly am,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said when asked if she was pleased that the administration decided lower the White House flags back down. “I could not understand why the administration had the flags lowered.”
Collins added that it “certainly looks like” the president’s actions were the result of him letting his personal differences get in the way of honoring the late Arizona Republican.
“You can get into the fight between the president and John McCain, I’m not going to.”
Top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), issued a fierce rebuke of Trump in light of McCain’s passing after the White House flags were lowered again amid mounting backlash.
“I understand he’s finally relented late this afternoon but it shows what type of man Donald Trump is,” Warner said. “The office of the presidency should not be besmirched the way President Trump continually does.”
Warner also issued a call for his Republican colleagues to step up and push back against the administration. “At some point, how many norms, how many values just crassness has to come out of this White House before people stand up for values that John McCain represented?”
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a fellow veteran, said she will never forget McCain’s mentorship, while also urging the administration to “be extremely gracious in the fact that he has passed.”
Other Republicans were less eager to discuss the controversy surrounding the White House’s seemingly botched response to the Republican icon’s death, opting instead to focus on remembering McCain’s legacy.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told reporters when asked about the White House’s recent actions. “This week is about John McCain and his legacy […] You can get into the fight between the president and John McCain, I’m not going to.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 ranking Republican in the Senate, remained silent on Monday, refusing to respond to multiple questions from reporters about the administration’s handling of McCain’s passing on his way to the Senate chamber.
Another hot topic on the Hill Monday was trying to figure out who is prepared to step up and fill the maverick-sized hole that McCain’s passing now leaves in the Senate and national politics.
“I think we are so poll-tested and focused group driven that it’s just hard to imagine another John McCain,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said regarding the Arizona senator’s knack for speaking out, often against his own party. “John did it so often that he got away with it in a way that other people didn’t.”
“John called me a communist publically dozens of times,” Murphy recalled with a smile. “If anybody else did that it would make headlines but John was just relentless and speaking from the heart.”
Outgoing Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was stumped when asked who he thought could slide into McCain’s roll on Capitol Hill and challenge the president moving forward. “I don’t know. Ron Johnson maybe?” Corker said, but he quickly retracted his pick after a puzzled response from reporters.
“Let me take that back and think about it for a while,” he added. “I’ll try to think of somebody who might be an independent voice, potentially after the midterms.”