It really seems that way. America rejected McCain, someone who asks himself ‘what can I gain from this’ instead of ‘what will the American people gain from this’. Then someone comes along and is asking all the right questions, listening to the American people, just being himself, and wins the White House. We think McCain is very green at the moment…
By Gabriel Sherman
John McCain was hustling down the hallway in the Russell Senate Office Building with the purpose of an Aaron Sorkin character. It was not yet two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, and McCain had already become the fiercest Republican critic of the new administration. While party leaders like Paul Ryan were contorting themselves to defend even Trump’s most ill-conceived executive orders, McCain had been, for a member of the president’s party, on fire: He had criticized Trump for banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, for his failed first mission in Yemen, for his suggestion that he might lift sanctions against Russia; he even took diplomacy into his own hands, reaching out to Australia to assure the country of our continued friendship after Trump had bizarrely confronted its prime minister in their introductory phone call. By many measures, there is no one better positioned to challenge Trump from within his own party. The so-called maverick was just reelected to the Senate by a 13-point margin; at 80 years old, he has both significant stature and nothing to lose. Still, for McCain, opposing Trump is not a simple matter. For one thing, it’s tricky to challenge a vengeful president who has taken to Twitter to accuse McCain of “emboldening the enemy” and “trying to start WWIII.” For another, McCain is not a Republican in Name Only; he is a true believer, an elder of the tribe. He does not exactly relish being deemed the loyal opposition.
“What? What!” McCain barked as he ran into a throng of reporters.
“Some people are saying you’re Trump’s No. 1 nemesis,” a reporter said. “Is that the role you’re trying to stake out?”
McCain shook his head. “It’s very convenient for the media to say that,” he grumbled. “If interpreters who worked for us in Iraq are not allowed into the United States, then I’m going to speak up. If that makes me a nemesis of the president of the United States, then you can label me as such.”
“They want a scenario of, quote, ‘confrontation,’ ” McCain told me as we stepped into the elevator. McCain was on his way to lunch in the Senate Dining Room with his friend Lindsey Graham, the other Republican Trump critic in the Senate whom many Democrats look to with hope. He found Graham at a corner table in the back.
“A group of ’em stopped me and said, ‘Are you Trump’s nemesis?’ ” McCain recounted. “I said, ‘That’s such a convenient thing.’ ”
“It’s actually boring,” Graham said. “There are a lot of sins in life, but the one that’s intolerable is being boring. I hate boring.”
McCain shook his head at the notion that just because he had the temerity to criticize the president, congressional Democrats thought they could recruit him to their cause. “These are the same Democrats that shredded me in 2008,” he said. “I get along with the Democrats, but please, I’m not their hero. They’re trying to use us. We will work with them, but have no doubt, their agenda is not our agenda.”
Yes, lest anyone forget, McCain and Graham, like many of their Republican brethren, came into this administration almost giddy with the possibility of what could be enacted with both chambers of Congress and the White House under GOP control. McCain said he was enthusiastic about Trump’s plans to slash regulations and increase military spending, and he is a fan of Defense Secretary James Mattis, with whom he said he’d spoken nearly a dozen times that week. He is also gleeful about Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who stopped by the table with Kelly Ayotte, the former Republican senator (and Trump critic) from New Hampshire, who is helping Gorsuch through his confirmation process.
“Judge! How are ya?” McCain said, bolting up to shake Gorsuch’s hand.
Graham called across the table: “Anybody who wants to poison the water and adulterate the food is a good man for me!”
Gorsuch and Ayotte gave Graham panicked looks.
“Didn’t you hear what Nancy Pelosi said?” Graham asked, referring to the House minority leader’s comment that Gorsuch should be considered a lousy pick by anyone who breathes air or drinks water. “She said if you eat it or drink it, he’s bad!”
Gorsuch forced a relieved smile, getting the joke.
“The Democrats are just off the reservation. They’re crazy the way they’re behaving,” McCain said to Gorsuch. “As for hearings, I’ve never seen anything like this. Just keep your flak jacket on. Steady as she goes.”
No one knew it at the time, but this congenial lunch was perhaps John McCain’s last sanguine moment about the Trump administration. In the two weeks since, he has watched as allegations about Russian involvement in the election — and possibly in American foreign policy — picked up steam, and as Michael Flynn was forced to resign as national-security adviser after revelations that he improperly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador (and then lied to the vice-president about it). To McCain, these are red-line issues. No matter how much he likes the prospect of deregulation, the compromising of America’s sovereignty was pushing him closer to the barricades.
“The severity of this issue, the gravity of it, is so consequential because if you succeed in corrupting an election, then you’ve destroyed the foundation of democracy,” he told me later. “So I view it with the utmost seriousness. I view it more seriously than a physical attack. I view it more seriously than Orlando, or San Bernardino. As tragic as that was, the far-reaching consequences of an election hack are certainly far in excess of a single terrorist attack.”
Now McCain is renewing his calls for a bipartisan select committee to look into Trump’s ties to Russia, which could ultimately put pressure on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor — a probe that could get perilous for the president. While he is meeting with resistance from party leaders so far, McCain plans to use his role as chair of the Armed Services Committee and ex officio member of the Intelligence Committee to push for answers. The Trump administration’s viability rests on the support of a Republican Congress, and what John McCain is doing, carefully but with growing fervor, could shake its foundations.
The story of McCain’s captivity in Vietnam has been told so many times it can now be rendered in shorthand: 1967, a bombing raid over Hanoi, his plane shot down, both arms and a knee broken, capture, torture, the prospect of early release refused on principle, an ordeal that lasts for more than five years, much of it spent in solitary confinement, during a war that most of the country had already given up on. It’s the story that made McCain’s political career, that’s been trotted out in six Senate campaigns and two presidential bids. But it also undeniably shaped McCain’s view of the world and America’s place in it. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” he said during his nomination acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention. “I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again; I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”
McCain believes in the idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States has a responsibility to be a force for good in the world and to confront repressive regimes. The Trump doctrine — to the extent that one exists — is quite different: American foreign policy should be dictated by nationalist self-interest at almost any cost. During the 2016 campaign, Trump advocated for reintroducing torture as a means of extracting information, killing terrorists’ families, and seizing Iraq’s oil. He derided international institutions such as NATO and the U.N. and cheered when Britain voted to pull out of the European Union. He praised brutal strongmen from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, whom he’s called a more impressive leader than Barack Obama.
McCain has been arguing for years that Putin’s Russia is a global menace that must be confronted. “Russia’s leaders, rich with oil wealth and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power,” McCain said during his 2008 RNC speech. “They invaded a small, democratic neighbor to gain more control over the world’s oil supply, intimidate other neighbors, and further their ambitions of reassembling the Russian empire.” He sees Russia as a bully with designs on rolling back the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe and controlling the Middle East with Iran, fundamentally threatening America’s place in the world. “Putin won’t stop until the cost of going forward is too high,” McCain told me.
The senator has challenged presidents of both parties when their foreign-policy directives ran counter to his own. In his first term in Congress, he criticized Ronald Reagan’s decision to station peacekeeping Marines in Beirut with minimal defenses, which resulted in the deaths of 241 service personnel when a suicide bomber drove straight into the barracks. His battles with George W. Bush over tax cuts, torture, and U.S. strategy in Iraq became the stuff of Washington lore. And during the Obama years, McCain was one of the president’s fiercest foreign-policy critics, finding fault with his decision to pull troops from Iraq and his refusal to enforce his “red line” on Syria after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people.
And yet it would be grossly inaccurate to characterize McCain as a man of pure principle. He’s too complicated for that. What makes him inspiring — and infuriating — to people on both sides of the aisle is that, more than most politicians, his political acts span a particularly wide distance between courage and expediency. He is capable of true heroism and conspicuous political cowardice. Over the years, he’s flip-flopped on some of his signature issues, from unfunded tax cuts to immigration reform to upholding Roe v. Wade. He’s often on the phone, dialing up friends and advisers to gauge their opinions and weigh the risks and rewards of various courses of action.