PHOENIX — Sen. John McCain will meet with GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence here just hours after Donald Trump told The Washington Post that he will not support the five-term Arizona senator in his primary election on Aug. 30.
"I haven't endorsed John McCain," Trump told the Post on Tuesday, adding that he has "never been" on board with the Arizona senator, going as far as to suggest McCain "should have done a much better job for the vets."
Pence, who an aide said has had "a good, longstanding relationship" with McCain, initiated the meeting with him in Phoenix prior to the release of Trump's remarks on Tuesday. Both camps confirmed to NBC News that the pair would still meet despite Trump's most recent attack. Last summer, Trump asserted that McCain is "not a war hero" because he was "captured" during his service in Vietnam.
Pence once again found himself in a potentially awkward position as Trump runs a parallel campaign — one marked by a litany of controversial assertions, including the suggestion that Ted Cruz's father was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald and the embrace of Russia's alleged roles in the hacking of DNC emails. Pence, meanwhile, has pushed back on criticisms of Trump's disrespectful remarks about the mother and father of fallen Captain Humayun Khan — saying multiple times this week that he and Trump "cherish" the Khan family.
Despite Trump's most recent remarks on McCain, which also included direct refusals by the GOP nominee to endorse Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pence told the Tucson crowd earlier on Tuesday — just a half hour after the story broke — that the Republican Party is "united."
Pence cheered from the stage: "Now, we are united — we are come together, and we are going to make Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States!"
Trump said two weeks ago that he also intends to hand other fellow Republicans and former presidential primary rivals Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich defeats in their next campaign bids.
While Pence was in Tucson Tuesday, Arizona Republicans, including the state party's GOP Chair Robert Graham, took to the microphone to rev up support for the presidential ticket from the several hundred in attendance. The Republican VP pick never addressed Trump's comments or discussed McCain during his town hall there.
McCain is facing a primary challenge on Aug. 30 by former state senator Kelli Ward. Early ballots for the election will be delivered to Arizona homes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Graham told NBC News after the event that it's the party's role to "get everyone elected — all Republicans."
"I'm confident that both of these guys are going to win the election," Graham said. "You have two very strong personalities, and that's what makes these guys uniquely special."
Ward, McCain's challenger, told NBC News in June at a Phoenix rally for Trump, which the senator did not attend: "They're hungry for change. They're disappointed, disgusted, frustrated, angry, upset at the DC insider establishment, and John McCain is the poster boy for insider politics."
McCain, if he wins his primary, is expected to face a difficult matchup against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in November.
"John McCain has clung to Donald Trump in a desperate attempt to have his political career despite the nominee's hateful and dangerous proposals and rhetoric," Kirkpatrick's campaign spokesman D.B. Mitchell said in a statement. "And in return? Trump has insulted him again and again. McCain has proven again that there's nothing Trump can do that would stop him from supporting the Republican nominee."
Jeff Flake, Arizona's other U.S. senator, has remained one of Trump's most vocal critics from the Republican side, and Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey attended a fundraiser for Trump in June but has yet to publicly appear with him.
"He was supposed to help with border control. He was supposed to help the vets," said Barbara Beck, a Trump backer in the Tucson crowd who said, along with many others surrounding her, that she will not back the longtime Arizonan. "He's been in here too long — he needs to retire."