White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had quite the controversy to answer for on Friday. It was less than 24 hours after an administration official reportedly made a deeply offensive joke about cancer-stricken Arizona senator John McCain, but as it turned out, she wasn’t willing to get into any sort of specifics about it. Sanders ducked questions about Kelly Sadler’s “dying” John McCain joke during the press briefing, insisting that she wasn’t going to “validate a leak” about an internal administration meeting.
Sanders, who’s been the press secretary since the departure of Sean Spicer from the job last July, did not seem very pleased to be fielding the questions. It was on Thursday that Sadler, a special assistant to President Donald Trump, reportedly joked during an administration meeting that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel was irrelevant, because “he’s dying anyway.”
McCain, 81, was diagnosed with glioblastoma last summer, a rare and highly aggressive form of brain cancer. It’s the same type of cancer that former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy died from back in 2009, and McCain has been straightforward about just how poor his prognosis is.
“They said that it’s very serious, that the prognosis is very, very serious,” McCain told CBS’ 60 Minutes last year. “Some say 3 percent, some say 14 percent. You know, it’s a very poor prognosis.”
When repeatedly asked about Sadler’s remark ― and more specifically, whether Sadler still has a job at the White House ― Sanders more or less stonewalled, declining to address the substance of the reports.
“I’m not going to comment on an internal staff meeting,” she said. “I’m not going to validate a leak, one way or another, out of an internal staff meeting.”
Sadler’s reported remark has stirred controversy and outrage on social media, and in the mainstream media too. In particular, both McCain’s daughter Meghan and his wife Cindy have responded publicly, with Cindy sending a tweet to Sadler reminding her that he has a loving family.
Meghan, for her part, responded to the comment on Friday’s episode of The View, remarking that her father is actually “doing really well right now” before addressing Sadler directly.
“Kelly, here’s a little news flash, and this may be a little intense for 11 o’clock in the morning on a Friday, but, we’re all dying,” she said. “And it’s not how you die, it is how you live.”
According to reports, Sadler’s joke was met largely with silence, and a few uncomfortable laughs. The White House subsequently put out a statementexpressing “respect” for McCain’s service to his country, although it did not address Sadler’s remark.
The news came the very same day that a Fox Business on-air guest sparked controversy by voicing support for American use of torture, claiming it worked on McCain. Specifically, former Air Force officer Thomas McInerney told Fox Business’ Charles Payne that McCain, who was captured and held as a prisoner for more than five years during the Vietnam war, was proof that torture worked, derisively calling him “songbird John.”
For the record, there’s no evidence McCain ever surrendered valuable information to the Vietnamese throughout the years he was tortured and beaten, although that’s not even very relevant to the cruelty of the remark. Payne ultimately issued an apology over the incident, and it similarly drew a stern response from McCain’s wife, Cindy.
In short, McCain’s name has been in the press a lot the past few days, and not necessarily for happy reasons. For what it’s worth, however, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan chimed in on the conversation on Friday, calling the Arizona senator a “hero” who “gave his entire adult life for this country.”