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EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Johnny Isakson Stands Up for McCain; Unloads on Trump

Georgia's senior senator gives the president a "whipping."
March 20, 2019
EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Johnny Isakson Stands Up for McCain; Unloads on Trump
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Later today Sen. Johnny Isakson will call out President Trump for his continued disparagement of John McCain. The chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee said in an exclusive interview on Tuesday that the service of any veteran, let alone McCain, should never be besmirched, that president’s comments “drive me crazy,” and that he plans to speak out at length on Wednesday.

Isakson had warned President Trump. When McCain died on August 25th and the flag at the White House remained at full staff, then went down to half staff but back again within one day—before the traditional end of the period of interment—Georgia’s senior senator considered the show of disrespect “unthinkable.” He took to the floor of the Senate and declared:

I don’t know what is going to be said in the next few days about John McCain by whomever is going to say it or what is going to be done, but anybody who in any way tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping because most of those who would do the wrong thing about John McCain didn’t have the guts to do the right thing when it was their turn. We need to remember that. So I would say to the president or anybody in the world, it is time to pause and say that this was a great man who gave everything for us. We owe him nothing less than the respect that he earned, and that is what I intend to give John in return for what he gave me.

On Tuesday, Isakson told me he plans to deliver the promised whipping. “I want to do what I said that day on the floor of the senate,” he said. “I just want to lay it on the line, that the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better, I don’t care if he’s president of United States, owns all the real estate in New York, or is building the greatest immigration system in the world. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us.”

Over the weekend President Trump issued dozens of tweets, including renewed attacks on McCain.

Amazingly, few of the late senators’ Republican colleagues were willing to defend their friend’s honor. (Mitt Romney defended McCain’s legacy in clear terms but stayed safely ambiguous on Trump’s moral culpability.) Meghan McCain was left on her own to stand up to the president’s abhorrent behavior. Which she did, admirably. Trump responded by retweeting someone else’s attack on Meghan McCain.

All of which placed Lindsey Graham in an awkward position. Graham was one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate. He’s now a Trump ally who tries to let as little daylight come between himself and the president as possible. He tried to square the circle by subtweeting a small tribute to McCain without mentioning Trump.

None of which seemed to register with Trump. At a Tuesday press conference, Trump was asked about his criticisms of McCain. He responded, “I was never a fan on John McCain’s and I never will be.”

Which was it for Isakson.

Isakson, a National Guardsman, chose the Guard to serve yet avoid the draft, unlike his best friend—Jackson Elliott Cox III—who died in Vietnam. “I tried to do what I could but never in the category of a John McCain or a Jack Cox . . . to those who saved us as a country, kept our freedom when we were about to lose it, fought for us, risked their lives, and died for us, we owe it to them, at times like this, to elevate them to the appropriate place in history,” Isakson said. “I want to elevate John. John was better than I am, and I know it. John was the best of my generation. John McCain was and is a great human being.”

Trump’s insistence on attacking a war hero—while he is himself the commander-in-chief, cannot be excused, Isakson said:

America deserves better, the people deserve better, and nobody—regardless of their position—is above common decency and respect for people that risk their life for your life. When the president is saying that that he doesn’t respect John McCain and he’s never going to respect John McCain and all these kids are out there listening to the president of the United States talk that way about the most decorated senator in history who is dead it just sets the worst tone possible.

Isakson resists cable news chat shows and Twitter, is closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is now proudly 25th in seniority in the Senate. He chooses when and how to speak out with great caution.

“I subscribe to the theory that the weight of my words is directly proportional to how few I use, so I don’t speak unless I’ve got something to say,” Isakson recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Isakson, unlike his GOP colleagues, has something to say today. And we’ll be listening.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.