White House Refusing To Apologize For “Joke” About John McCain

The White House isn't apologizing for an aide who made a joke about John McCain's most likely terminal illness. That shouldn't be surprising.

The White House is refusing to apologize for a tasteless joke made by a White House aide during a meeting regarding Arizona Senator John McCain:

WASHINGTON — The White House declined on Friday to renounce or apologize for an aide whose joke at a meeting that Senator John McCain was irrelevant because he would soon die went viral, outraging relatives, friends and admirers of the ailing lawmaker.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said she would not comment on a closed-door meeting where the joke was made. And she offered no words of regret over the remark or sympathy for Mr. McCain, a Republican senator and two-time presidential candidate who is battling brain cancer at his Arizona ranch.

“I’m not going to validate a leak one way or the other out of an internal staff meeting,” Ms. Sanders said. Asked why she would not simply apologize to Mr. McCain, she said, “I’m not going to get into a back and forth because, you know, people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.”

But she denied that President Trump, who in 2015 said that Mr. McCain was ”not a war hero“ because he spent more than five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam and that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,” had set a tone of disrespect. “We have a respect for all Americans and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, both in word and in action, focusing on doing things that help every American in this country, every single day,” Ms. Sanders said.

Mr. McCain’s friends lashed out at the White House for gross insensitivity. “People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration,” former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a statement. “It happened yesterday.”

“Given this White House’s trail of disrespect toward John and others,” he added, “this staffer is not the exception to the rule; she is the epitome of it.”

The aide, Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president, made the comment on Thursday, just three days after Melania Trump unveiled what she called a “Be Best” campaign to encourage children to put kindness first in their lives.

The conversation turned to Mr. McCain’s opposition to Mr. Trump’s nominee for C.I.A. director because of her past ties to an interrogation program that used torture on terrorist suspects. “It doesn’t matter,” Ms. Sadler said, “He’s dying anyway.”

About 20 people were in the room; some gasped while a few laughed, according to some who were there, but no one challenged Ms. Sadler at the time. Some colleagues said afterward that they were unhappy she made the remark, and the White House issued a written statement Thursday expressing respect for Mr. McCain. But Ms. Sanders confirmed that Ms. Sadler was still on the job.

Ms. Sadler works in the White House communications office focusing on illegal immigration. According to an online biography, she graduated from Hamilton College in 2002 with a degree in Chinese and international relations and later earned a master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University. She has worked as a management consultant and then as a reporter for Bloomberg and later The Washington Times.

Mr. McCain’s family expressed astonishment and outrage after the remark became known. “May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren,” his wife, Cindy McCain, wrote to Ms. Sadler on Twitter.

McCain’s daughter Meghan also responded to the comment yesterday on The View:

I’m not sure that Sadler should be fired for a very stupid and offensive “joke” made behind closed doors, but at the very least she should be publicly admonished and the White House owes Senator McCain far more than the milquetoast statement that it issued yesterday. That, apparently isn’t going to come and it’s not entirely surprising. In another era, a White House aide who said something like this would have gotten a rebuke from their direct boss at the very least, and possibly even someone as high as the White House Chief of Staff. As I said yesterday, though, this is an Administration headed by a man who built his political career on insults and hate. It’s no surprise that the people who work for him would feel free to mimic that rhetoric.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    I assumed that Sadler said what she did to curry favor with Trump.

  2. Barry says:

    I think that one thing which Whoopie was wrong on was that ‘the fish rots from the head’. The GOP base is responsible for Trump. His trick was that he realized what would really appeal to them, and it was rotting pigsh*t.

  3. Yes but the “fish rots from the head” comment was meant to address the tone that Trump’s behavior sets for everyone else that works in the White House.

  4. Gobsmacked says:

    Don’t expect Fox to call them out….

    Fox News Military Analyst Says Torture Worked On ‘Songbird John’ McCain

  5. HarvardLaw92 says:


    I assumed that Sadler said what she did to curry favor with Trump.

    I don’t think so. Trump wasn’t even in the room. People who think they are speaking privately drop the mask of faux civility and say what they really think, in the flawed assumption that they’re among fellow travelers who will protect them from exposure about having said it.

    The simple version is that this lady reduces the impending death of someone much more honorable than she is to a political calculation. She doesn’t care about the service he’s rendered to the nation, and she doesn’t care that he’s going to die. She just cares about winning.

    The unspoken caveat to that is that she has to be viewed as considering McCain’s death to be a positive. It helps her side win, and that is all that these people care about.

    Things like basic human decency? They couldn’t care any less about those …

  6. HarvardLaw92 says:


    We discussed that here

  7. CSK says:


    Sure, but she probably figured the comment would get back to him, which indeed it did.

  8. Kit says:

    I came late (as in dead last) to the past post on this subject, so I’m just pasting in my old comment.

    I don’t quite agree with anyone here. I’m not offended at what was, in all likelihood, a tasteless joke that sheds light on the working atmosphere at the White House. Just maybe, the context would have shown it to be an example of cynical gallows humor. Don’t know, don’t care.

    What I expect, however, is an apology. Not for me, of course. And not that I expect it to come from the heart. Still, even a ritualistic apology acknowledges a certain reality. Or as La Rochefoucauld had it: Hypocrisy is the homage the vice pays to virtue. The fact that the White House didn’t march Sadler out to apologize simply confirms (as if we really needed it) all we suspect about them and about their base: the Right no longer believes that service, honour, dignity or decency deserves even lip service these days.

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:


    I don’t give this nobody credit for the capability of being that Machiavellian. IMO she just felt comfortable enough to turn off the filters & engage in some verbal diarrhea.

    If she was indeed trying to be strategically obnoxious, she forgot rule #1.

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    See, this is where it starts crossing into real territory. It would cost the White House nothing to say, “it was a regrettable remark” or somesuch. They could even say, “Well, this was something said behind doors but certainly doesn’t reflect the attitude of this Administration”. Instead, their us-vs-them obsession with “leaks” has to be the story. It’s always about THEM, never about, you know, the man dying of cancer.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    someone much more honorable than she is

    I have the feeling that’s not a high bar to jump.

  12. CSK says:


    But it does reflect the attitude of this administration.

  13. Kathy says:

    Mangolini’s White House is allergic to decency.

  14. the Q says:

    The ghost of Roy Cohn is alive, well and thriving in this White House. That’s why the fall of the house of Trump will be more gratifying than watching Old Tailgunner Joe and his cohort of thugs go down in ignominy.

  15. CSK says:

    @the Q:

    Trump adored Roy Cohn. Cohn was Trump’s favorite lawyer of all time.

  16. Mikey says:

    This goes straight to the heart of Trumpism and the people it attracts. Of course there won’t be an apology. I’m sure when Trump heard that, he laughed. He doesn’t laugh often, but when he does, it’s always because someone got hurt.

    Here is one of the most accurate explanations of Trump’s power I’ve seen:

    Trump’s power is based on performative cruelty. That is what his supporters voted for–not for any policy, and not for any other principle than to do the worst thing to people outside the fold at every opportunity. He is loathsome, but he’s also keeping his promises.


  17. JohnMcC says:

    @the Q: I’ve had the same thought — that a sort of ancient evil that lives within the family keeps popping up every generation or some damn literary thing. But it really isn’t just back to ‘400 communists in the state dept’ and such. It really is part of who we are. It appeared in the ’20s when hundreds of thousands of fully-robed Klansmen paraded through D.C. and so on and so on.

    We have this same fight all the time, I think. And usually we win. But not always.

  18. Steve V says:

    And if I read the reports correctly the following day, knowing what was said at the next meeting would definitely be leaked, Sanders makes a point of saying that she doesn’t care about the remark and only cares about the fact it was leaked. Just in case anyone had any doubts about their position on the matter.

  19. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Steve V:

    I saw that. She opined something along the lines of “this will probably be leaked too”.

    No fewer than five people who were in that room promptly leaked it to Axios. In a finite population like that, where leadership knows without a doubt that the leakers must be among the limited number of people who were in the room, frankly that’s ballsy of them. It openly demonstrates contempt. I think it shows just how disenchanted even the staff is growing with these odious people.

  20. Mikey says:

    @HarvardLaw92: The call…is coming…FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!

  21. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Mmhmm 🙂

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnMcC: We usually win, eventually. At least we have so far. But I understand where the pessimism comes from. I feel it, too.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder if anyone who voted for Trump would like to apologize…