The Trump White House Will Not Apologize About John McCain (or Much Else, Really)

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, reinforced the idea on Monday that leaks coming from the White House, not the contents of an aide’s remarks, were the main source of frustration for the administration.

WASHINGTON — Missteps? This White House has made a few.

But apologies? Almost never.

White House officials reiterated their position on Monday that a morbid joke anaide made about John McCain — an 81-year-old, six-term Republican senator with brain cancer — is not the sort of thing that warrants an apology on behalf of this administration. This decision led colleagues and relatives of Mr. McCain to wonder what sort of situation would.

It has also drawn consternation from some Republicans, who are waiting for more lawmakers to back up their colleague and demand an apology from the White House. So far, they’ve heard little.

“Senator McCain is an American hero who has given his life to public service,” Mike Steel, a Republican strategist, said in an interview. “This would’ve been a one-day story if there had been an apology at the end of last week.”

Slowly, several of Mr. McCain’s fellow Senate Republicans — including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Dan Sullivan of Alaska — began to call for an apology. But relenting to others’ critiques is not the way of the Trump White House. And it is certainly not the way of President Trump. As pugilistic a president as he was a candidate, Mr. Trump’s apologies are rare.

“The president has always throughout his career had a stance of ‘never apologize, never back down,’” Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, said in an interview. Aides are “more likely to face the wrath internally” from the president for admitting a misstep than they are “fighting the media’s instincts,” he added.

This combative ethos has stood firm amid an assortment of insults and missteps. Mr. Trump and his top aides did not apologize for his disparaging remarks about Haiti and countries in Africa. He mended fences with — but stopped short of a direct apology to — Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain after retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by an ultranationalist British group. And his remarks last year that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally that left one woman dead in Charlottesville, Va., prompted sustained criticism from Congress and many fellow Republicans, but no apology from Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump had also refused to apologize for disparaging remarks he made about Mr. McCain on the campaign trail in 2015: “He’s not a war hero,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. McCain, who was shot down during the Vietnam War and held prisoner for more than five years in Hanoi. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Even the rare mea culpa seems to bear an asterisk. In 2016, about a month before the election, when comments Mr. Trump made about grabbing women during an “Access Hollywood” segment surfaced on tape and threatened to destroy his campaign, he quickly apologized in a short video statement.

“I’ve never said I’m a perfect person,” his apology began. But by the end of the statement, he had returned to a more familiar message: “Let’s be honest,” Mr. Trump concluded, “we’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

According to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, this ethos is again behind the White House’s lack of an apology over the remark made by Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president, in a meeting last week.

In off-the-cuff comments that were quickly leaked to the news media, Ms. Sadler assessed Mr. McCain’s opposition to Mr. Trump’s nominee for C.I.A. director: “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s dying anyway.”

Two other forces are driving the decision not to apologize, that official said: The first is that White House officials believe that the Obama administration apologized for the United States’ behavior on the world stage too often. And the second is a pervasive feeling of frustration among aides who fear their every word will be leaked to the news media. (An impassioned plea made last week by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, to keep internal discussions private was leaked to the website Axios by five aides within hours.)

Anger over leaks starts with the president.

“The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Monday. “With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”

That anger trickles down. When he took to the podium to speak to reporters on Monday, Raj Shah, a deputy White House press secretary, reinforced the idea that the leaks coming from the White House were the main source of frustration internally, not the content of Ms. Sadler’s remarks.

“If you aren’t able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you,” Mr. Shah said, “that creates a very difficult work environment. I think anybody who works anywhere can recognize that.”

Mr. Shah added that he understood “the focus on this issue,” but declined to offer specifics that Ms. Sadler’s remarks were being “addressed internally.” Ms. Sadler, who works in the communications office and focuses on immigration, is still at work and is sending emails to the staff as usual, according to a White House official.

One of the administration’s few acknowledgments of a misstep came from Mr. Shah, who made headlines in February for saying during a news briefing that the White House could have better handled the episode surrounding Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary who faced accounts of abuse from two former wives. Officials at the time released several conflicting timelines of the situation, including which officials knew about the accusations against him and when. The episode renewed scrutiny of how the Trump administration vets its officials.

“I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better” in dealing with the situation, Mr. Shah told reporters at the time.

The president, as usual, was watching the briefing that day. Mr. Trump was incensed by Mr. Shah’s admission, according to a White House official, and told him not to do it again.

On Monday, Mr. Shah declined to say whether the White House would make it clear that remarks such as Ms. Sadler’s would not be tolerated in the administration. Instead, he reiterated that Ms. Sadler’s comments constituted an “internal matter.”

Mr. Steel, the Republican strategist, said the White House was clearly ready “to take the political hit” for not backing up Mr. McCain, who has not been a consistent supporter of the administration’s policies.

“They are picking the wrong cross to die on in this case,” Mr. Steel said.

Mr. Shah’s reaction to the situation surrounding Mr. McCain stood in contrast to how he answered questions from reporters who pointed out racially charged statements made by two men involved in the United States Embassy’s opening in Jerusalem on Monday. On this matter, at least, the deputy press secretary made the president’s stance clear.

“I haven’t seen those remarks,” Mr. Shah said quickly. “But obviously those aren’t remarks that the president agrees with.”

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