John McCain: I was ‘surprised’ by Donald Trump’s fury
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talked to The Arizona Republic about Donald Trump, “crazies,” VA reform, sanctuary cities, border security, the Iran nuclear deal and the 2016 GOP presidential race.
Arizona Sen. John McCain is back in the national political spotlight, having come under fierce attack from Republican presidential contender Donald Trump over his POW status during the Vietnam War and his efforts to help veterans.
The controversy exploded July 18 when Trump, the celebrity real-estate titan, told an Iowa audience that McCain is “a war hero because he was captured” and that Trump likes “people that weren’t captured.” McCain earlier had stoked the feud by telling theNew Yorker magazine that Trump had “fired up the crazies” at his July 11 rally in downtown Phoenix.
The uproar over Trump’s anti-McCain tirade continued all week as organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans for America and even the National Border Patrol Council defended McCain, a former Navy aviator who was shot down in 1967 and endured brutal conditions as a prisoner of war for more than five years.
McCain, the 2008 GOP White House nominee who is now seeking a sixth U.S. Senate term in Arizona, discussed Trump, the Republican presidential race and other topics in an extended question-and-answer session withThe Arizona Republic.
QUESTION: How do you respond to Trump’s attack on your record concerning veterans-affairs issues?
ANSWER: “He said I haven’t done a, quote, damn thing. Look, we have 28 veterans a day who commit suicide, OK? At the behest of the families, we did the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act. He said the legislation that we passed was, I believe he said was a disaster. The vote was 93 to 3 on the VA reform bill that I worked with Senator (Bernie) Sanders on. We have pending, generally speaking, 600 veterans cases per day that we are working on for veterans from all over America. Usually, when any issue comes before us from someone who lives outside of Arizona, we refer it to the senator from that state. Veterans issues? Anybody in America who’s got a problem, we take on that case. We have five staff people whose only job is to handle veterans issues. Probably the most heart-warming thing about this whole fiasco is that my fellow POWs and veterans, all over America, we are hearing from in a flood of calls, e-mails and letters. That’s the state of affairs, and that’s what it is, and any allegation that somehow veterans are not wholeheartedly behind me does not bear scrutiny. As I’ve said before, on (MSNBC’s) ‘Morning Joe,’ I guess, he doesn’t owe me an apology. I’m in the arena. But he does owe an apology to every single veteran who was captured and was a prisoner of war.
“You may know, that three weeks ago, I had a ceremony … for a 92-year-old who is blind, who was shot down and captured during World War II as a bomber pilot. He spent time in the stalag and weighed 90 pounds when he was rescued by Patton’s tank corps. Go online and watch him as he talks about me, OK. You go ahead and watch that, and then you’ll see how the veterans feel about me.
“As to the issue of, quote, crazies, obviously, I was speaking in jest. I appreciate the rough-and-tumble of my party, and of my citizens. I have been called crazy many times, and, as I’ve said, I view it as a term of endearment. I have been called a ‘traitor’ by many. But I’m proud to have had the support of the people of Arizona and I am confident that if I continue to work hard for them that they will send me back for another term in the United States Senate.”
Q: Was it fair for Trump to single you out for blame for the Department of Veterans Affairs problems when the department is part of the executive branch?
A: “It is, and it’s our responsibility, too, to pass legislation that would help to fix the problems that the executive branch, obviously, isn’t fixing. And that’s why the major aspect of this legislation we passed is the Choice Card, so that veterans who live a certain distance away from a VA facility can have a card so that they go to the health-care provider of their choice. In Arizona, it’s particularly relevant. And, by the way, the VA is fighting that every step of the way. You know, they had this cost overrun at this hospital up in Denver: a $1.7 billion cost overrun. Guess where they wanted to take the money from to make up for that? The Choice Card.”
Q: Were you surprised that Trump went after you with such fury?
A: “I was surprised. I honestly was surprised. I’d never had a clash with him before. I was surprised, but I think it’s important to note he attacks everybody. He attacks (Jeb) Bush, he attacks Lindsey Graham, he attacks (Rick) Perry. It’s sort of his trademark. He attacks the media, but, more importantly, he attacks all of the other candidates. He has something derogatory to say about all of them. He doesn’t just say he disagrees with them. He casts aspersions on them.”
Q: Does Trump have much policy depth?
A: “Well, I saw him this morning on ‘Morning Joe.’ And the question was … how would you fix the border? And he said, of course, ‘build the wall, build the wall, build the fence’ and all that. And then they said, ‘What about the 11 million that are already here?’ Well, he went into a rant. ‘It’s not 11 million, it’s 30 million,’ on and on like that. And they said, yeah, but what would you do about that? He said there are some with ‘merit.’ That was his answer. So he makes these statements and does not have any solutions for them other than to criticize those of us who are trying to find solutions.”
Q: Do you see immigration as one of the top issues of the presidential race?
A: “Especially in Arizona. Because we do not have secure borders. There are people in the southern part of our state, ranchers, who have people crossing their border every night. That is the reason why we had to fix it. I campaigned on fixing it the last time around, and that’s why I passed with seven others, Republicans and Democrats, a solution. That solution was to spend six-and-a-half billion dollars on border security, guarantee 20,000 additional Border Patrol, and achieve a goal of 90 percent effective control of our border. That was the (2013 ‘Gang of Eight’) legislation we passed. I could not force the House of Representatives to act. I think it was a terrific mistake that they didn’t act. But as a senator, I said that I would get legislation passed that would secure the border. That legislation was passed through the United States Senate.
“Just two more quick points. One is that (President) Barack Obama promised he’d take up immigration reform after he was elected. He had 60 votes in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House. And he did not. Second of all, by issuing these executive orders, which were clearly unconstitutional, he inflamed the situation and harmed our ability to work in a cooperative fashion.”
Q: Is the recent Republican focus on sanctuary cities a helpful direction for the immigration debate?
A: “If you accept the sanctuary cities, if you accept that premise, then there would be anarchy. If every city in America decided which federal laws they would enforce and those that they would not, then you would have anarchy. And that’s one of the major reasons why sanctuary cities are absolutely, totally, unconstitutional and, if allowed to continue, could lead to anarchy. Suppose that a majority of the city council said we’re not going to pay federal taxes. Well, you can’t do that. That’s not our system of government.”
Q: What is the state of the Republican Party these days? Is the turmoil overblown?
A: “Well, I think we’re obviously in a very interesting time, and unprecedented, because you have so many people that are running. But at the same time, I noted that in key states yesterday, there was a poll that showed our leading candidates beating (Democratic presidential frontrunner) Hillary Clinton. The rising mistrust of Hillary Clinton is being reflected in the polls, but, of course, all the oxygen is being sucked out of the room by the Trump campaign.”
Q: How can any of the other 15 Republican candidates besides Trump distinguish themselves in the GOP primaries?
A: “I think it’s hard. A good example of how hard it is that the day before yesterday, John Kasich, a very successful governor of a swing state (Ohio), announced, and it was on the inside of the papers. The news cycle was certainly dominated by Donald Trump and there wasn’t sufficient mention of a very viable candidate in Gov. John Kasich. But in case you missed Lindsey Graham’s video with the cellphones (that good-naturedly responds to Trump’s disclosure this week of Graham’s personal mobile phone number on live TV), don’t miss it.”
A: “I think (first-in-the-nation primary host) New Hampshire is the state where I think he can be very successful.”Q: You have endorsed your friend Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Is it disappointing that he currently is in last place of all 16 Republican candidates?
Q: Graham seems to be trying to make the Iran nuclear deal a big campaign issue.
A: “Iran nukes, yeah. I think that could help him, because the more that we find out about this deal, the more unsavory it becomes.”
Q: How will Congress respond to the Iran agreement?
A: “Right now, it depends on how we present the case to the members of Congress and the American people. The most likely scenario right now is that we pass the motion of disapproval, and then it is vetoed by the president. Then the major question is do we have sufficient votes to override a veto? And I don’t know the answer to that.”