McCain strikes back as Trump’s chief critic

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.) is President Trump’s fiercest critic in the GOP and is giving voice to misgivings held by other Republicans more reticent about airing criticism in public.

McCain’s latest stunning public shot was to tell The Guardian that America’s standing in the world was stronger under former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE, a man the Arizona senator has torched for a “feckless” foreign policy.

The statement came a month after McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, strongly criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for downplaying the importance of basing foreign policy decisions on American values.

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“With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope,” McCain warned in a New York Times op-ed.

Also last month, McCain called reports that Trump had shared classified information provided by Israeli intelligence “deeply disturbing” and warned that allies may not share sensitive material in the future.

McCain is rarely afraid to speak his mind, noted John Weaver, a longtime political adviser to the senator.

“I’ve talked to a number of Republican senators who share the same viewpoint and for whatever reason are reluctant to say it,” said Weaver.

McCain’s office and the White House did not comment for this article.

McCain was less critical of Trump last year, when he was running for reelection to the Senate for a sixth term — even after Trump questioned McCain’s status as a Vietnam War hero.

“I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said in a cutting remark about McCain’s five years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison.

Since then, McCain, who relished the label of maverick earlier in his career but has aligned himself more closely with the GOP establishment recently, has become a big thorn in Trump’s side. 

He praised Comey “as a man of honor and integrity” after Trump fired him and argued that the president’s decision confirmed “the need and urgency” to set up a special congressional committee to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.

When Trump later disparaged Comey as a “nut job,” according to press reports, McCain said he was “almost speechless.”

In May, he said the controversy could become a full-blown scandal, observing, “It’s reaching the point where it’s of Watergate size and scale.”

On the policy front, McCain last month cast a surprise vote to kill a resolution Trump favored that would have overturned an Obama-era rule on methane emissions.

Unlike GOP Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals MORE (Maine), who announced their positions prior to opposing the resolution, McCain did not give a public warning, prompting speculation that he wanted to warn Trump over the Comey firing.   

McCain also opposed Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, to protest the administration’s uncertain stance on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

McCain is one of the few Republican figures in the country who are as well known as Trump.

He is also 80 years old, a fact repeatedly brought up after he stumbled with his questioning of Comey last week during a highly anticipated Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

McCain, in another surprise, appeared to be trying to defend Trump by asking Comey about the differences between how the FBI handled the investigation into Trump and a separate investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE.

But the way McCain sought to communicate his arguments confused Comey, members of the panel and much of the television audience, leading to questions about his stamina.

McCain acknowledged he could have been better, joking in a statement that he had been up late watching a baseball game the night before.

Other Republicans have hinted at similar concerns to McCain’s on Trump but have muted their criticism.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics MORE (R-Tenn.) appeared stunned last week when he learned Trump had accused Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, of being a state sponsor of terrorism.

“The president?” Corker asked reporters, looking shocked as one journalist showed him Trump’s comments made earlier that day on Twitter.

But Corker did not directly criticize Trump’s remarks.

Other Republicans have pushed back on Trump’s foreign policy moves, albeit with less force than McCain.

In February, Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDurbin: Senators to release immigration bill Wednesday GOP senators eager for Romney to join them Gardner: Bipartisan DACA solution possible despite Trump's 's---hole countries' comment MORE (R-Colo.) sent a letter to Trump urging him to take a tougher line with Russia.

He urged the administration to take “diplomatic actions” and impose “economic consequences” in response to Russian cyberattacks against the United States and other Western democracies.

Several other Republicans signed the letter, including Senate GOP Whip John CornynJohn CornynMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Hoyer suggests Dems won't support spending bill without DACA fix MORE (Texas), Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeEPA's Pruitt: Bring back 'true environmentalism' Tax cut complete, hawks push for military increase Trump meets with oil-state GOP senators on ethanol mandate MORE (Okla.) and Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.).

Republican lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (Ky.) broke with Trump in February after the president suggested a moral equivalency between Russia and the United States on human rights.

When asked about allegations that Putin is “a killer,” Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly: “You think our country’s so innocent?”  

McConnell shot down that notion right away.

“I don’t think there’s any equivalency,” McConnell said the day after Trump’s comments were published.

“America is exceptional,” he added. “There’s a clear distinction here.

“I obviously don’t see this issue the same way as he does.”

McCain has at times sought to counter Trump’s influence on the world stage.

In February, he called the Australian ambassador to reassure him about his country’s alliance with the United States after a tense phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Trump gave Turnbull a tongue lashing over a deal to transfer more than 1,000 refugees to the United States, accusing him of wanting to send the “next Boston bombers” across the Pacific.

 Some leading members of the Republican foreign policy establishment had serious concerns about Trump’s foreign policy chops heading into last year’s election.

In leaked private emails, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served under President George W. Bush, called Trump “a national disgrace and international pariah.”

With McCain’s remarks comparing Trump unfavorably to Obama, Weaver said he was just voicing an idea he’s previously shared with world leaders. 

“He’s all but said the same thing on his trips to the Munich defense conference and to Asia,” Weaver said. “I know he’s very concerned about America advocating its position in the world on trade and security issues.”