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McCain's Death Hasn't Stopped Trump From Criticizing The Ex-Senator

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump just can't let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've never liked him much - hasn't been for me. I've really - probably never will.

MARTIN: That was the president yesterday speaking in Ohio, airing his grievances with John McCain again. The Arizona senator died seven months ago. Few elected Republicans are willing to criticize President Trump directly about these remarks. But Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson told Georgia Public Broadcasting President Trump has crossed a line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHNNY ISAKSON: It's deplorable, what he said. That's what I called it from the floor of the Senate seven months ago. It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again. And I will continue to speak out.

MARTIN: Mark Salter was a senior aide, speechwriter and friend to Senator John McCain. He is with me now on the line.

Good morning, Mark.

MARK SALTER: Good morning.

MARTIN: What went through your mind when you heard the president's remarks?

SALTER: Oh, you know, that was about the third or fourth time in the last 72 hours he's done something like that. So I guess we're getting a little - it's beginning to become a little tedious.

MARTIN: It is no secret, though, that the president had a strained relationship with Senator McCain. But, as we noted, the senator has been dead since August. Why do you think - understanding you can't climb inside the mind of President Trump - but why do you think that this is happening now?

SALTER: I don't know. I'm not a child psychologist. I would guess that, you know, he's - he craves the sort of admiration from the corridors that Senator McCain received it and doesn't get it and resents him for that. I think you have to be a genuinely a wreck of a human being to be jealous of a dead man. But I - you know, that's my assumption.

MARTIN: What have you made of Republicans' response to all this? Lindsey Graham, in particular, has been very careful not to come down too hard on the president about his constant disparaging of your former boss.

SALTER: They've all got to - I mean, I was very gratified by Senator Isakson, Senator Romney. And I know Lindsey was - I heard Lindsey say some supportive comments too. But, you know, the problem really isn't, Rachel, that - you know, the problem isn't his disrespect to John or John's family. The problem is Trump. He has no self-control, and he is the most powerful man on the planet. And that's what Republicans - all Republicans, for the sake of the party's future, for the sake of the country - ought to be saying, ought to be addressing. It's glaringly obvious. This man's unfit for the office.

MARTIN: But as you well know, the response to that is, we deplore what he says. But on certain policies, it is worth to stomach some of the disparaging remarks and his, quote, unquote, "style" to get those policy objectives.

SALTER: It's not. The damage he's doing to our politics, to our country, to our country's reputation in the world, to our alliances - it's not worth the damage to drop a top marginal tax rate a few points. It's just not.

MARTIN: Is there a point at which you, as someone who was a friend of John McCain - is there a point at which you just begin to ignore the president's tweets or remarks about your former boss?

SALTER: Yeah, you know, you sort of have to. But, you know, I - I'd like to go back to a life where someone like Donald Trump's opinion on anything doesn't matter in the slightest. But if you turn away, if you avert your gaze, then you don't address the elephant in the room, which is just what I said, that we have an unfit man in the most powerful office on Earth. And we need to do something about it.

MARTIN: Mark Salter was a senior aide, speechwriter and friend of Senator John McCain. Thank you for your time this morning.

SALTER: Thanks for having me on, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's turn now to NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro, who was listening in on that conversation. Domenico, the president's grievances about John McCain did coincide with some more information about the so-called Steele dossier, did they not?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Right. You know, last week, there were unsealed documents in a - in court filings that showed Senator McCain as - detailed Senator McCain's involvement in passing along the dossier to the FBI. And, you know, that's something that Senator McCain has already talked about in a book that he co-wrote with Mark Salter, who we just had on - had said that he doesn't care, you know, that he did this because the fact was he couldn't substantiate the allegations. And if you're looking for the truth, then you pass it on to the FBI. And anyone who didn't like it, he said, could go to hell.

MARTIN: Does the president risk anything with his base when he makes remarks like this about a war hero? - I mean, especially with veterans who support the president.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, it's not the first time that President Trump has criticized John McCain in this way. I mean, remember; four years ago, he talked about Senator McCain wasn't a war hero because he was captured. And he likes - prefers people who weren't captured. So this has been an ongoing thing for a long time. And a lot of Republicans felt that him doing that initially would derail his campaign. And it certainly did not. So, you know, looking at whether or not this could derail him in any other way, I think, is probably a fool's errand. But when you think about what Mark Salter said in a more broad way about Republicans and being willing to stomach some of this for what he said were a few drop - a few points drop in the corporate tax rate, he said he feels that's not worth it.

MARTIN: Domenico Montanaro, NPR's lead political editor for us this morning - Domenico, thank you. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.