Schwarzenegger Steps In to Defend John McCain’s Legacy

The former California governor called President Trump’s attacks on the late Arizona senator “absolutely unacceptable.”

Senator John McCain and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the University of Southern California in 2013 (Nick Ut / AP)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain saw in each other a willingness to buck the Republican Party and became fast friends and political allies. Mindful of McCain’s legacy, the former California governor said on Wednesday that he couldn’t stay silent in the face of President Donald Trump’s recent spate of attacks on the late senator.

He told me that Trump’s swipes at McCain are both disgraceful and destructive. “He was just an unbelievable person,” Schwarzenegger said. “So an attack on him is absolutely unacceptable if he’s alive or dead—but even twice as unacceptable since he passed away a few months ago. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to do that. I just think it’s a shame that the president lets himself down to that kind of level. We will be lucky if everyone in Washington followed McCain’s example, because he represented courage.”

In a jab at the president’s 243-pound physique, the former world-champion bodybuilder said that Trump should turn his attention to infrastructure and immigration reform when he wakes up and starts his morning workout.

“I know he must be working out every day, because he’s so unbelievably in shape,” Schwarzenegger said.

Trump’s tirade began with a pair of weekend tweets laced with falsehoods. The first, on Saturday afternoon, scorned McCain for forwarding the now-famous Russia dossier to the FBI and casting the deciding vote that blocked Trump’s promised repeal of Obamacare:

Spreading the fake and totally discredited Dossier “is unfortunately a very dark stain against John McCain.” Ken Starr, Former Independent Counsel. He had far worse “stains” than this, including thumbs down on repeal and replace after years of campaigning to repeal and replace!

His second tweet came early on Sunday morning:

So it was indeed (just proven in court papers) “last in his class” (Annapolis) John McCain that sent the Fake Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election. He & the Dems, working together, failed (as usual). Even the Fake News refused this garbage!

Why Trump had become so agitated seven months after McCain’s death was not entirely clear. One White House aide says that excoriating McCain isn’t a “winning issue,” and that officials would like to see Trump drop the subject. People close to the White House say that he might be feeling pressure from the Russia investigation, or that he was set off by something he saw on cable-TV news.

Whatever it was, the president hadn’t exorcised those demons by Wednesday, when he spoke at a manufacturing plant in Ohio and again invoked the dossier. “What did he do? He didn’t call me,” Trump said. “He turned it over to the FBI hoping to put me in jeopardy. That’s not the nicest thing to do.”

Trump went on to say that he had “never liked [McCain] much. Hasn’t been for me. I really probably never will.” He wasn’t finished. Trump noted that he’d approved state funeral arrangements for McCain. And he said, “I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted … but I didn’t get a thank you.”

Trump wasn’t invited to the McCain funeral service, which some of his allies describe as a hurtful snub. “McCain’s funeral was calibrated to insult Trump—from not inviting him to the way the media played it up,” the former senior White House aide Steve Bannon told me before the president spoke in Ohio.

A former aide to McCain, Mark Salter, told me that McCain did the responsible thing and gave the dossier to law enforcement. “What would you have him do?” Salter asked. “He didn’t have his own intelligence agency. He had to give it to people who can do something with it.” As for Trump not having been invited to the funeral, Salter said, “I don’t think it’s a surprise that [McCain’s] family wouldn’t want him there.”

Only a few Republican senators have, like Schwarzenegger, condemned Trump’s attacks. Tepidly. Most have stayed silent, possibly mindful of his hold over the party rank and file. Defying the president invites scornful tweets, if not a primary opponent.

McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, sent out tweets Sunday that defended McCain while not mentioning Trump.

He offered a more pointed statement on Wednesday, telling reporters in South Carolina, “I think the president’s comments about Senator McCain hurt him more than they hurt the legacy of Senator McCain.”

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who’s had an on-again, off-again relationship with Trump, tweeted on Tuesday, “I can’t understand why the President would, once again, disparage a man as exemplary as my friend John McCain: heroic, courageous, patriotic, honorable, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, empathetic, and driven by duty to family, country, and God.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote a tweet Wednesday that hailed McCain as a “rare patriot and genuine American hero”—but also omitted mention of Trump.

In his recent attacks, Trump has avoided mention of McCain’s record as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. During the presidential race, Trump said he preferred people “who weren’t captured,” referring to the years McCain, shot down as a Navy pilot, spent captive at the so-called Hanoi Hilton.

Schwarzenegger described McCain as “a hero.”

“He was a great public servant, no two ways about that,” Schwarzenegger said. “He was known for his honesty, for his courage, and his patriotism and his service.”

The war hero turned politician and the movie star turned politician joined forces in 2005, when McCain helped Schwarzenegger push for a package of education and spending initiatives in California. Voters defeated the measures, but Schwarzenegger didn’t forget the favor; he endorsed McCain in the 2008 Republican presidential-nomination fight.

Schwarzenegger is busy these days. An aide says a new Terminator film is coming out in the fall. He is working to draw fairer electoral districts, ending the gerrymandering that protects incumbents. He doesn’t want to be a pundit, and the last thing he needed was a fight with Trump. But staying quiet wasn’t an option.

Trump, Schwarzenegger suggested, should shift his focus from tweeting to governing.“The president should lift people up, should lift the nation up rather than always tearing people down,” he said.

Trump, he said, should consult the first lady, who has made online bullying a cause: “Why don’t you go and sit down with your wife for just a few minutes, Mr. President, and listen to the first lady when she’s talking about stopping online bullying. That is a really great message. Which way do we go? Your way, or her way? That’s really the question here.”