Michael A. Cohen

Kelly Sadler’s McCain joke is a comfortable fit for this White House

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2017 file photo, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., pauses before speaking to reporters during a meeting of the National Defense Authorization Act conferees, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A White House official dismissed a view expressed by Sen. McCain about President Donald Trump's CIA nominee, saying Thursday, May 10, 2018, at a staff meeting that "it doesn't matter" because "he's dying anyway," two people in the room told The Associated Press. Kelly Sadler was discussing McCain's opposition to Trump's pick for CIA director, Gina Haspel, when she made the comment. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Kelly Sadler’s appalling attempt at humor about John McCain, above, struck a nerve because it’s so emblematic of the Trump White House’s daily debasement of our fundamental values.

WHEN IT COMES TO Trump administration-related outrages, a White House aide named Kelly Sadler joking that Senator John McCain’s opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel to be head of the CIA doesn’t matter because “he’s dying” ranks fairly low on the list.

After all, this is an administration that continues to employ Scott Pruitt; regularly lies to and misleads the American people; and boasts about enacting a policy to separate parents from their children for trying to enter the country illegally.

This administration isn’t exactly well-stocked with people who have strong ethical and moral cores.


Yet Sadler’s appalling attempt at humor has struck a nerve because it’s so emblematic of the Trump White House’s daily debasement of our most fundamental values. I’m not talking about values that are traditionally considered “American.” Rather, I’m speaking of those that are universal — common decency, civility, and respect. These are kind of tenets that don’t stop at borders or are endemic to one nation-state over another; they are fundamental elements of our basic humanity. Yet it appears they don’t reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, put it best in responding to Sadler’s comments: “The thing that surprises me most is . . . I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in when that would be acceptable, and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job.”

But of course, we know what kind of environment where this is acceptable. It’s one in which the president uses vulgar terms to describe sub-Saharan African countries. It’s one where undocumented immigrants are regularly demonized and scapegoated; and where journalists and critics of the president are attacked in highly personal terms (“Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd” and “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer.”)

Of course, it’s also an environment in which the president himself denigrated McCain’s lengthy captivity by saying he likes heroes who weren’t captured.

I’m not a journalist who buys into the cult of John McCain. Like any other politician, he is a flawed figure and his political choices — from selecting the monumentally unqualified Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008 to his decades of foreign policy militarism — deserve to be harshly scrutinized. But if there two areas where McCain is beyond reproach it would be a) his fight with brain cancer and b) the more than five years he spent in a North Vietnamese POW camp. The latter, alone, makes him a genuine American hero. And yet, somehow, this deplorable president and his deplorable White House have mocked McCain on both fronts.


This is the precisely the kind of environment in which Sadler would feel comfortable making her vile joke. It’s remarkable, yet not at all surprising, that more than 72 hours after Sadler’s comments became public, she not only still has a job, but no one from the White House has felt the need to apologize for what she said. Indeed, White House officials have been more publicly indignant that the joke had been leaked, rather than it had been uttered at all.

One might imagine that Sadler would feel such shame at what she said that she would resign without being asked. One might also imagine that those who are employed at the White House would be pushing for her to be let go, out of embarrassment that such attitudes could exist so comfortably in their workplace. In an ideal world, one would hope that the president himself would feel that those who work in the White House should embody that best of America and that of ourselves, and Sadler’s continued presence undermines that goal.

But of course we don’t live in that world. We live in one in which a White House press aide can laugh about the fact that a US senator, hero, and human being is going to die soon and it’s simply just another day in Trump’s America.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears reguarly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.