WASHINGTON — Furor built Friday among lawmakers in both parties and family members following reports that one of President Donald Trump's aides, Kelly Sadler, had mockingly referred to Sen. John McCain's brain cancer diagnosis during a White House meeting.
"There are no words," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted.
During a White House meeting on Thursday, Sadler reacted to McCain's announcement that he opposes Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA director because of her involvement in the agency's enhanced interrogation program.
"He's dying anyway," Sadler said, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
The White House hasn't denied her comment and multiple spokespeople have not responded to questions from NBC News about Sadler's future in the administration.
At the White House press briefing Friday afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined multiple times to comment on Sadler's remark, and confirmed that Sadler still has a job at the White House.
"I'm not going to validate a leak" by commenting on it, said Sanders. She added that "we have respect for all Americans" without mentioning McCain by name.
Earlier Friday, McCain's daughter Meghan wondered publicly why Sadler still had a job.
"I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in that that would be acceptable and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job," she said Friday on ABC's "The View." "My father's legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years. These people are nothing-burgers. Nobody’s going to remember you."
Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife, tweeted at Sadler on Thursday evening: "May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren."
Former Vice President Joe Biden, on the presidential ticket that beat McCain in 2008, said Friday that the Arizona senator is a "genuine hero" whose "sacrifices for his country are immeasurable." Biden, who served in the Senate with McCain, lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015.
"People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday," Biden said in a statement. “Given this White House's trail of disrespect toward John and others, this staffer is not the exception to the rule; she is the epitome of it."
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asked to share his thoughts about McCain on Friday by CNN host S.E. Cupp — who referenced what she called "unnecessary" comments about the senator from "surprising corners" — praised McCain.
"Look, John McCain is a hero. No two ways about it," Ryan said. "John McCain, I mean he gave his entire adult life for this country. John McCain fought for us in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, came home and dedicated his life to public service. His vocation in life was making life better for people and better for the country. There are so many accolades I could heap on a John McCain."
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said Friday that Sadler's "denigrating" comments are "reprehensible."
"Whatever one's differences with John, he's a patriot who has served our nation selflessly and honorably and deserves our respect," Moran tweeted.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said on Twitter, "Our nation should be grateful for the exemplary service and sacrifice of [McCain], and treat this war hero and his family with the civility and respect they deserve."
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., called Sadler's comments "outrageous and unacceptable."
"It's a sad day in this country when White House officials are mocking a man who was tortured as a prisoner of war," Jones tweeted Friday. "He's more than earned the right to speak out on these matters. A public apology should be issued immediately."
Democratic lawmakers sounded a similar note.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said shortly after the story broke that it was "unacceptable" for anyone in the Trump administration to "cruelly mock veterans" like McCain, no matter their political or policy differences. "He gave so much for our nation," Reed said, referring to the torture McCain endured as a POW in Vietnam.
McCain, 81, who has served in Congress since 1983 and was the GOP's presidential nominee in 2008, was diagnosed nearly a year ago with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He has not returned to Capitol Hill for several months while undergoing treatment.
Reacting to Sadler's reported comment, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., tweeted Friday, "Is part of being low and small that it's irresistible to show just how low and small you are?"
"Our politics may be different but John McCain is an American hero," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., on Thursday. "The vile and repugnant attacks we've seen from POTUS, WH staff and the far right are disgusting and show how small they are next to this honorable man."
The initial report of Sadler's comment came the same day retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney mocked McCain during a TV appearance on the Fox Business network, arguing that torture had worked on the Arizona senator.
"The fact is, is John McCain — it worked on John," McInerney said. "That's why they call him 'Songbird John.'”
NBC News reported last weekend that people close to McCain have asked Vice President Mike Pence to participate in the senator's funeral, not President Trump. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are expected to be eulogists at the funeral service, which is to be held at the Washington National Cathedral, a source close to McCain said.