The Memo: Trump can't let go of McCain grudge

President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE’s ugly grudge with the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Earth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private MORE (R-Ariz.) has been on vivid display this week, overshadowing the White House’s economic message and roiling its GOP allies.

Among people who are part of Trump’s orbit, there is tacit acceptance that the McCain battle does the president little good. But there is also a combination of head-scratching and shoulder-shrugging.

“In the short term the question is, would it be best for him to focus on other things? Well, sure,” said one former White House official. "But this is actually the appeal of Trump: You are not getting a phony politician, you are getting someone who is telling you what he actually thinks.”

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The battle with McCain, and Trump’s other big feud this week with George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayGeorge Conway: Case for Trump's impeachment better than Nixon's Trump hosts annual White House Egg Roll with record 74,000 eggs The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump team fights back over Dem subpoena MORE, are bringing new scrutiny to Trump’s willingness to hold a grudge — even with someone in the grave.

And Trump, true to form, is not backing down. On Thursday, he reportedly described McCain as a “horrible person” in an interview with Maria Bartiromo set to air Friday on the Fox Business Network. 

The previous day, the president had startled even seasoned Trump-watchers by complaining that he had not received sufficient thanks for McCain’s funeral.

“The McCain attacks are strange. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” said a GOP strategist with ties to the White House. “I don’t know if he is trying to fill time or trying to distract from Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE,” the special counsel whose report is expected soon.

The audience listening to Trump’s remarks about McCain’s funeral gave them a notably muted reception.

In broader GOP circles, they have created a weariness. Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawVA 'ain't broke' — but it can certainly be improved Ocasio-Cortez plans visit to Kentucky despite being disinvited by GOP colleague Ocasio-Cortez knocks Republican over Kentucky trip: 'GOP thought they could catch us with a bluff' MORE (R-Texas) tweeted Thursday: “Mr. President, seriously stop talking about Senator McCain.” 

Trump can make up with someone and seemingly let a grudge die.

During the GOP presidential primary, he gave out Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamIf you don't think illegal immigrants are voting for president, think again Graham challenges Dems to walk the walk on impeachment Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE’s (R-S.C.) personal phone number and suggested Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Liberal survey: Sanders cruising, Buttigieg rising Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote MORE’s (R-Texas) father was connected to the assassination of President Kennedy.

The senators and president have since made up, though many political observers have noted that both Graham and Cruz needed Trump’s support with the GOP base.

Trump has weathered innumerable controversies before, and this week’s events represent continuity of a kind, since his unusual ability to sail through such storms was first displayed early in his campaign when he suggested McCain should not be considered a war hero because of his years as a POW during the Vietnam War.

Since then he has feuded not only with GOP primary rivals, but with the parents of an American soldier who was killed in action, his own attorney general and his former secretary of State, innumerable journalists, TV shows including “Saturday Night Live,” and the cast of “Hamilton” — among hundreds of others.

The willingness to incite and intensify verbal assaults is an ingrained part of his character, according to some of the people who have known Trump longest.

Personal attacks were “quite common” during his time as a real estate developer in New York, said Barbara Res, a former vice president of the Trump Organization who worked with the future president for more than a decade. 

She recalled a long-running, and now barely remembered, feud with another New York developer, Leonard Stern, in the late 1980s.

“If somebody wrongs him in any possible way, he will fight back and he will fight back much, much harder,” said Res. She added that she experienced this herself after she made a comment suggesting he was dishonest “and he came back at me gangbusters.”

Sam Nunberg, who worked for the future president for several years but was fired from the nascent presidential campaign in 2015, contended that Trump “was completely disloyal and he left me out to dry.”

“I was working for him for four and a half years. I was on the campaign for all of six weeks and he screwed me over.”

Trump later threatened to sue Nunberg. Nunberg said the case was settled “amicably.”

“I wholeheartedly support President Trump,” he said. “I wholeheartedly dislike the way Donald Trump was disloyal to me.”

Such tussles are commonplace for Trump, according to Tim O’Brien, the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion and the author of a book on Trump.

“This is pretty fundamental to who he is,” O’Brien said. “He will turn 73 in June, and he has been doing this for the best part of six decades: random, personal, critical attacks on competitors, partners, politicians, the press, friends.”

One of the many curious elements of Trump’s personality is his capacity to hold on to some grudges, like the one against McCain, while forgiving and forgetting others.

Figures like Res and O’Brien see a cold calculation.

“He could turn around in one second if it was to his benefit to not feud,” Res said.

O’Brien argued that reconciliations tend to happen with Trump only when, in the first place, “he has gone into battle with people who have a mutual interest with him. Lindsey Graham is a classic example. Lindsey Graham is finding it difficult to tell Donald Trump that it’s wrong to demean the reputation and legacy of his best friend, John McCain.”

In O’Brien’s view, “If Trump can get political or financial gain from making up, he can make up. But there’s a pretty small universe of people of whom that’s true.”

The former administration official had a more generous view: “I think the general idea that Trump can’t make amends is totally false. He likes nothing more than making amends with former enemies. Think how happy he was when [Mitt] Romney was groveling to be secretary of State.”

But, referring to McCain’s attacks and, more recently, Conway’s repeated insinuations that Trump is mentally ill, the former official added, “He’s not going to make up with people who are constantly needling him.”

The question of how negatively Trump is impacted by these moments has never been fully settled. 

His approval ratings fell to some of the lowest levels of his presidency around McCain’s death, when his response was widely seen as grudging and included a long delay before lowering the flag at the White House to half-staff.

But even Trump critics acknowledge his base is impervious to the controversies, seeing them as evidence of his unwillingness to compromise.

That doesn’t mean there are no consequences, however. 

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGOP Senate campaign arm hits battleground-state Dems over 'Medicare for All,' Green New Deal Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing MORE (R-Ariz.), who was appointed to fill McCain’s old seat, has expressed her disquiet with the president’s attacks, describing McCain on Twitter as “an American hero” deserving of “respect.”

“The president should be careful because he got less votes than John McCain did in Arizona in 2016,” said Nunberg, who made clear he was no fan of McCain’s. “The McCain clique could try to sink Arizona for him” in 2020.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.