Rift Between Trump and McCain Reflects Split Within GOP

The tension between Sen. John McCain who died Saturday at 81, and President Donald Trump has come to symbolize, in many ways, a divide within the GOP.

The tension between Sen. John McCain who died Saturday at 81, and President Donald Trump has come to symbolize, in many ways, a divide within the GOP.


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When President Trump was heading to West Virginia to give a speech to the Boy Scouts last summer, aides came to him with an idea: Make a side trip to Arizona to visit Republican

Sen. John McCain,

who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, a person familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Trump said no. He told them he and Mr. McCain plainly didn’t like one another and it would seem “phony” and hypocritical for him to make the trip, the person said.

The tension between the two men has come to symbolize, in many ways, a divide within the GOP between traditional Republicans like Mr. McCain and the “America First” insurgency of President Trump.

As the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, Mr. McCain spoke for an internationalist wing of the party that sees overseas alliances and troop commitments as a stabilizing force in the world. Mr. Trump leads a nationalist movement more skeptical of U.S. intervention abroad.

For now, the Trump wing appears ascendant, while traditional Republicans are in retreat. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey last month showed that nearly nine out of 10 Republican voters support the president, numbers surpassed in recent history only by

George W. Bush

after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Strategists note that it was, in fact, Mr. McCain who pointed the way for the potential success of a candidate like Mr. Trump.

When Mr. McCain ran for President in 2008 he tapped a little-known governor of Alaska as his running mate.

Sarah Palin

became a hit with the Republican base, skewering economic elites and establishment figures much as Mr. Trump would do in his presidential run eight years later.

Ms. Palin’s populist energy helped position Mr. McCain for victory before the financial collapse of 2008 took hold, said

Steve Bannon,

former White House strategist. A voter backlash over the financial crisis, combined with Ms. Palin’s populism, “lit the fuse that exploded in 2016 with

Donald Trump,

” Mr. Bannon said.

Messrs. Trump and McCain never forged an alliance. In 2015, Mr. Trump famously said that Mr. McCain wasn’t a war hero because his plane had been shot down and he was captured in Vietnam.

“I like people who weren’t captured,” Mr. Trump said.

The following year Mr. Trump gave a perfunctory endorsement of Mr. McCain in the Arizona senate race after edging close to backing a Republican primary challenger,

Kelli Ward,

a person familiar with the matter said.

For his part, Mr. McCain yanked his endorsement of Mr. Trump in October 2016 after a videotape appeared showing the former reality TV star talking of sexually aggressive behavior toward women.

Once in office, Mr. Trump made some overtures to Mr. McCain.

Former Republican Vice President

Dan Quayle

said that he spoke to Mr. McCain about a year and a half ago, and the senator told him he and his wife had enjoyed dinner with the president at the White House.

“John was telling me, ‘We still have our differences but it was very pleasant,’” Mr. Quayle recalled in an interview Sunday. “When you meet with someone and break bread with them, that’s positive.”

A turning point was Mr. McCain’s thumbs-down vote in July 2017 on the president’s health-care overhaul. Mr. McCain released a statement saying he didn’t believe the plan would improve the health-care system or reduce costs. He urged the parties to start over and work together on a compromise.

After Mr. McCain voted no, Mr. Trump raised the issue repeatedly at rallies. He didn’t typically mention Mr. McCain by name. But with the senator at home in Arizona fighting illness, Mr. Trump called attention to Mr. McCain’s vote, describing it as a profound disappointment.

He mentioned it at a rally in Minnesota in June, making a thumbs-down gesture. The senator’s daughter,

Meghan McCain,

later wrote on Twitter that Mr. Trump’s focus on the moment “never stops being gross.”

John Weaver,

a longtime political aide to Mr. McCain, once called and asked him to speak out about Mr. Trump. “I said, ’We need your voice in this darkest hour,’” Mr. Weaver recalled.

“Johnny,” he said Mr. McCain replied, “you don’t know how dark.”

After Mr. McCain’s death, Mr. Trump tweeted his “deepest sympathies” for the senator’s family. His wife

Melania Trump

tweeted a fuller tribute, thanking Mr. McCain for “your service to the nation.”

Though Mr. McCain is gone, some Republican strategists believe his brand of Republican politics and his bipartisan orientation endures. They predict that the battle over the GOP’s identity will continue once Mr. Trump leaves office.

“What does the party look like in a post-Trump era?” said

Michael Steele,

former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Are we a party that is fearful of immigrants? Have we become a party that has a small world view and is isolated to just the United Sates? I don’t think that’s the case in the end.”

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

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