Sen. John McCain’s decision to exclude President Trump from his funeral is an extraordinary moment on its own, a posthumous rebuke from an American icon who regarded the presidency as sacred, and believed its current occupant defiles that office.
Yet Trump’s exclusion from such high-profile events of mourning and celebration — where American presidents are typically counted on to stand in for an entire nation — is emerging as a pattern over his 19 months in office.
Trump, the outsider who rode the politics of grievance, resentment and insults to election, and into the Oval Office, is becoming for many a pariah president. To be unwelcome at funerals, cultural celebrations and victory parties is another unprecedented aspect of his presidency; aides to recent White House occupants could not recall similar snubs, even for presidents during times of unpopularity or investigations.
The slights have come in all forms, spanning ideologies.
In April, Trump was asked to stay away from the funeral of Barbara Bush, wife to one president and mother of another, leaving it to former Presidents Clinton and Obama to serve as national consolers to the Bush family. In December, he opted to skip the president’s traditional attendance at the annual Kennedy Center Honors gala after several of the artists being feted threatened a boycott.
Trump has used such rejection to his advantage to mobilize his supporters. He complains to them, as he’s done at political rallies as recently as this month, that the “elites” will never accept them — the “deplorables” — the term he co-opted from Hillary Clinton to highlight their sense of the disapproval shown by the nation’s political and cultural establishment for Trump and his core supporters.
“You ever notice they always call the other side …‘the elite?’” Trump said at a Minnesota rally in June. “The elite. Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal, best people on Earth — the deplorables.”
The riff drew loud applause, as it often does.
Yet friends and allies say he is also deeply wounded, seeing the snubs as part of a larger effort to delegitimize his presidency.
Trump’s pique “is genuine. None of it is a put-on,” said Michael Caputo, a former political advisor. “He has the same deep and abiding disdain for the elites that each and every one of the ‘deplorables’ have today.”
The resentment was a constant throughout his career in business and entertainment, where he was dismissed as more of a boastful, tabloid-seeking showman than the serious mogul he believed himself to be.
“I am sure that he is aggravated that the political establishment still will not accept him,” said one longtime friend who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the subject. “What he really doesn’t understand is that their objection is cultural as well as political and that they will never accept him.”
But critics say Trump created the isolation by his occasionally outrageous behavior, by reveling in a politics that feeds conspiracy theories, humiliates rivals and disdains basic notions of civility.
“He lacks any kind of humility. He kind of takes pride in kicking people around. So when people then strike back, he shouldn’t be disappointed, because in many ways he’s asked for it,” said Leon E. Panetta, who served in Congress and in the Clinton and Obama cabinets.
Trump’s response to McCain’s death on Saturday afternoon was just the sort of break from presidential tradition and civility that alienates many.
After lowering the American flag to half-staff on Sunday, by Monday the White House had raised it fully, weaponizing the visual sign of respect even as flags remained lowered at federal buildings throughout Washington, including the Capitol. Aides did not respond to requests to explain the decision.
Trump also declined initially to issue the usual official proclamation honoring McCain or to answer reporters’ questions about him in three appearances at the White House on Monday. Instead, he spent the weekend playing golf and tweeting about the strength of the economy and his own popularity, despite polls to the contrary.
However, after petitions of protest from the nation’s leading veterans’ organizations, the White House later Monday released a proclamation that flags would remain at half-staff until McCain’s burial on Sunday.
It also issued a statement from the president, expressing respect for McCain’s service. Later, Trump told evangelical conservatives at the White House for dinner, “We very much appreciate everything that Sen. McCain has done for our country.”
In Arizona, McCain’s longtime confidant, Rick Davis, read a farewell statement from the deceased senator, which served as McCain’s final shot at Trump’s brand of politics.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” McCain wrote. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
John Weaver, a top advisor in McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, noted in an interview that McCain chose Republican Bush and Democrat Obama, two men from different parties who defeated him in those presidential races, to deliver eulogies at his funeral. He said McCain probably wanted to send a message that politics could get ugly, but not so ugly that fellow Americans become enemies.
Weaver also said McCain probably “sloughed off” Trump’s attacks on his military service and heroism.
McCain’s animus “was more about his concern about where [Trump] was taking the country and his attacks on innocent people, on average people, on people who have sacrificed at the highest level,” Weaver said, highlighting Trump’s 2016 attacks on the parents of Humayun Khan, who died while serving in Iraq.
Trump tends to view such fights in terms of winning and losing. Even after he denigrated McCain’s heroism as a Vietnam prisoner of war and disparaged the Khans after they criticized him — attacks that many people, at the time, said would sink Trump’s candidacy — Trump won his party’s presidential nomination and the election. Given that, he believes his style is validated.
Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.