By Ed O’Keefe, Sean Sullivan and Karoun Demirjian,
A day after announcing that he is combating a brain tumor, Sen. John McCain used his signature snark to warn colleagues that he will be returning soon to Washington — and chastised the Trump administration for ending assistance to moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad.
“I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support — unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted Thursday morning, just hours after his office confirmed that he has been diagnosed with a tumor called a glioblastoma after surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye last week.
In a separate statement, McCain blasted reports that President Trump is ending the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling Assad’s government, a move long sought by Russia.
If true, “the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” McCain said in the statement. “Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and shortsighted. The administration has yet to articulate its vision for Syria beyond the defeat of [the Islamic State], let alone a comprehensive approach to the Middle East.”
On Wednesday night, Trump exhorted McCain to “get well soon” and declared the senator a “fighter.” Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both tweeted their good wishes.
On Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “We look forward to seeing our friend again soon and we hope he’ll be back in the very near future.”
When McCain might return to Washington, however, remains in doubt.
The Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, which diagnosed McCain, said that the senator and his family are considering treatment options, including a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. His office has not indicated when he might return to the Senate.
The tumor McCain is fighting, glioblastoma, is an aggressive type of brain cancer, and the prognosis for this kind of cancer is generally poor. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) survived less than 15 months after his was found in 2008. Beau Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden, died of the same cancer in 2015.
McCain’s doctors said the “tissue of concern” was removed during the blood-clot procedure last week.
The Arizonan’s significance in Congress is hard to overstate — and his absence, however long, will reverberate across the Capitol.
His illness leaves McConnell — and Trump, who has openly mocked the McCain — with 51 votes, the barest of majorities at a time when Republicans are divided on issues such as health care, taxes and defense spending.
McCain’s absence would also deprive the Senate of its moral conscience on many key issues, particularly in the ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s potential involvement in Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
A prisoner of war in Vietnam and a two-time presidential candidate, McCain is known for his unfiltered opinions and willingness to buck Republican Party orthodoxy. Along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), perhaps his closest friend in the Senate, McCain has become one of Trump’s leading Republican critics, particularly on issues of foreign policy and national security.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said Wednesday night that the news of McCain’s diagnosis was announced during a meeting between GOP senators and White House staffers on health care. Hoeven said the news left the group in “stunned disbelief.”
“It was very emotional,” Hoeven said. “I think for all of us he’s a special person.”
Graham also attended the meeting and told others there that he had spoken with McCain and described him as “resolved and determined.”
“He said, ‘I’m going to have to stay here a little bit longer and take some treatments, but I’ll be back,’ ” Graham said of McCain. “He said, ‘I’ve been through worse,’ and basically then we started talking about health care and the NDAA” — a reference to the National Defense Authorization Act.
McCain has staunchly defended Trump’s national security team — he has particular respect for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. But McCain has criticized the president for campaigning on a promise to fortify the country’s defenses without, in his view, devoting enough money to the task. And as he did on Thursday, McCain has frequently criticized Trump’s apparent affinity for Putin, the Russian president.
“John McCain has always been a warrior. It’s who he is,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “I know John is going to fight this with the same sheer force of will that has earned him the admiration of the nation. And all of us, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans, are behind him. The prayers of the whole House are with Senator McCain and his family.”
Formally, McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but McConnell essentially deputized him after his second presidential bid, in 2008, to run all national security issues for Senate Republicans.
But McCain’s standing — from his stature borne of overcoming torture in Vietnam to his denunciations of Trump as a candidate and as president — reaches far across the aisle. He is an iconic figure as beloved by Democrats as by Republicans.
Almost every major bipartisan deal of the past 15 years has come with McCain’s backing, on issues including immigration, outlawing torture and the Senate’s internal rules.
Democrats line up to travel with McCain overseas because foreign leaders treat him as if he’s a prime minister, winning audiences that are usually reserved for a secretary of state.
His fights with fellow senators have been legendary, but so have his dealmaking skills.
“Heartbreaking news,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on Twitter of McCain’s illness. Murphy said he has “traveled the world” with McCain and “learned a lot from him.” Murphy added that “there is no one tougher.”
In a written statement she posted on Twitter, McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, said the news of her father’s illness has “affected every one of us in the McCain family.” She said they live with “anxiety about what comes next,” something they have endured before. McCain has a history of melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer.
She added that “it won’t surprise you to learn that in all this, the one of us who is most confident and calm is my father. He is the toughest person I know. The cruelest enemy could not break him.”
McCain’s absence could complicate the fate of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, massive legislation that McCain has played an outsize role in shepherding through Congress since he took over as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 2015.
From that perch, McCain has made a name for himself attempting to hold contractors to account over stalled projects while driving an overhaul of the acquisition process. He has pushed for greater investments to improve the quality and availability of materiel and training; an expansion of the U.S. military footprint abroad, particularly in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq; and an unprecedented focus on improving the country’s ability to safeguard against cyberthreats and hacking.
McCain was relentless in his criticism of Obama’s understanding of national security, accusing him of compromising the nation’s security by making nuclear deals with Iran and pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq. But McCain was also open to working with Obama to explore closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. That effort ultimately failed.
McCain’s absence from the Senate this week came as GOP leaders struggled to bring their failing push to rewrite the 2010 Affordable Care Act to a conclusion. Leaders had intended to vote on a bill this week but postponed their plans late Saturday after McCain said he would be out recovering from the surgery to remove the blood clot.
On Monday, McConnell scrapped plans to vote on the bill altogether once it became clear it would not have the support to pass even with McCain in town to vote. McCain had voiced skepticism about the GOP “repeal and replace” plan. It was unclear whether he would ever get to yes on it.
Lenny Bernstein, Laurie McGinley, Kelsey Snell, Lena H. Sun and Paul Kane contributed to this report.
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