Mulvaney defends White House aide over 'dying' McCain comment: It was 'joke' in 'private meeting'

White House budget chief Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOne year in, Democrats frustrated by fight for Trump tax returns Meadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE on Saturday defended the White House aide who made a derisive comment about Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEsper faces tough questions on dismissal of aircraft carrier's commander Democratic super PAC targets McSally over coronavirus response GOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Ariz.), saying the real issue was that the "bad joke" had been leaked to the press.

“This was a private meeting inside the White House. It was a joke. It was a badly considered joke that she said fell flat,” Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said during an appearance on Fox News. 

But Mulvaney argued that the leak of the comment posed the greater issue: "The leak was designed to hurt that person. Also, it completely ignored the harm it would do to the McCain family, which is doubly inconsiderate."

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The Hill first reported Thursday that special assistant Kelly Sadler had mocked McCain's brain cancer diagnosis a day after the Arizona Republican had come out against Trump's pick to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel.

“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” Sadler said, according to a source familiar with the remarks at the internal meeting.

The White House on Friday faced backlash over the comment from lawmakers and members of the media, with figures such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump shakes up WH communications team The Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic The Intercept's Ryan Grim says Cuomo is winning over critics MORE and GOP Utah Senate candidate Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOutgoing inspector general says Trump fired him for carrying out his 'legal obligations' Trump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE blasting those mocking McCain.

McCain, 81, is in Arizona battling brain cancer.

Sarler called McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, after news broke of her comment, a source told The Hill on Thursday.

The senator's wife Cindy chided Sadler on Twitter over the comment, while Meghan McCain suggested that the White House aide should be fired.

Despite the controversy over the remark, Mulvaney said Saturday he does not support calls for Sadler to be fired.

“You have to have freedom to speak in a private meeting. We have all said things in private ... that we would never say publicly. I think she handled it appropriately,” he said.