Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on March 8, 2017.(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
WASHINGTON — President Trump has blasted NATO as “obsolete,” tweeted about sensitive foreign policy situations and taken an unorthodox approach to his calls with foreign leaders. These early foreign policy moves have raised concerns among U.S. allies.
Enter Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican has used his perch as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee to shape national security and influence foreign policy. But he’s also acted like a diplomat of sorts, making calls and taking trips to reassure foreign leaders concerned about where they stand with the White House.
McCain's post as head of the Armed Services Committee requires him to travel extensively and schmooze world leaders. He also is known for speaking his mind — particularly on foreign policy and national security — even if it means breaking with his party.
McCain is making use of that combination to reassure anxious foreign leaders that the U.S. still has their back, even as the president calls for an “America first” policy.
Last month, the Arizona senator phoned the Australian prime minister after it was reported that a call with Trump had gone poorly. Later in the month, McCain gave a speech to world leaders assembled at a security conference in Munich, where he warned against the rise of nationalism. He never mentioned Trump by name but blasted the president's approach to foreign policy and assured those in attendance that it was not shared by Congress, the vice president or the Homeland Security and Defense secretaries.Munich speech
In his speech, McCain said those who founded the conference in the wake of World War II would "be alarmed" at the racism, anti-Muslim sentiment and "growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies" around the world today.
“I know there is profound concern across Europe and the world that America is laying down the mantle of global leadership. I can only speak for myself, but I do not believe that is the message you will hear from all of the American leaders who cared enough to travel here to Munich this weekend," McCain said.
Sen. Jack Reed, who is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called McCain’s remarks at the 2017 Munich Security Conference "critical."
“I thought it was a very thoughtful speech, I thought it raised significant issues, particularly with respect to the behavior of Russia over the last several years,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks during the 53rd Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, 2017. (Photo: Philipp Guelland, European Pressphoto Agency)
“It is extraordinarily beneficial, not just to the Senate, but to the country, when you have a voice that is so clear and convincing and so sincere on these issues based on knowledge, experience that makes all the difference in the world,” the Rhode Island Democrat continued. “He is someone that everyone has to listen to and I hope that they do.”
Joseph Nye, who was assistant secretary of Defense under then-president Bill Clinton, said the Trump administration is the first U.S. administration in 70 years to raise questions about America's post-WWII alliances.
Nye was present for McCain's Munich speech and said a common sentiment in response to it was “thank God for John McCain.”
“Trump created an anxiety which was much greater than we’ve seen in the past and that makes the role of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman even more important," said Nye, former dean and now a distinguished service professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "And the fact that (McCain) is a prior presidential nominee of Trump’s party also helps: He has a stature that an ordinary senator would not have."
Wes Gullett, a former longtime aide to McCain, said the senator is “reassuring world leaders that America’s still there for them and will be. And the Senate and the Congress is still on track to be supportive of things that Republicans have been supportive of prior.”Passion for foreign policy
Speaking out — particularly on foreign policy — isn’t a new role for McCain.
He has attended the Munich Conference for four decades. He also leads a similar confab in Sedona every year described by the McCain Institute as "a high-level gathering of national and international leaders committed to addressing real world problems from a common foundation of core democratic values."
And he has been known to go on fact-finding missions to high-impact zones like Afghanistan or Syria. During the Senate recess last month, McCain went on a secret trip to Syria to visit U.S. forces and strategize on how to defeat the Islamic State.
“That’s sort of him to his core and it just is getting more attention now and is more prevalent because of his stature,” said Gullett, who is now the CEO of OH Strategic Communications.
“I think John has been consistent. I mean he, you know, will be supportive of a president if he thinks that he is doing the right thing and he will be critical if he believes he’s doing the wrong thing and that’s consistent,” Reed said. “I think it’s issue by issue and it’s not based on personality or the position of the president.”
Sen. John McCain arrives at the U.S. Capitol for President Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb, Pool/European Pressphoto Agency)No Trump friendship to worry about
McCain and Trump have a colorful history, if not downright nasty.
In 2015, then-candidate Trump said McCain — who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War — was not a hero because he was captured. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said at the time.
McCain, who was running for re-election for his sixth term in the Senate, supported Trump as his party’s nominee until the fall of 2016. He pulled his backing after a 2005 Access Hollywood video was released in which Trump talked about being able to make unwanted advances on women because of his star power.
After Trump took office, McCain criticized a military raid in which a Navy SEAL was killed. Trump fired back: McCain’s “been losing so … long he doesn't know how to win anymore.”
While most Republican lawmakers are still hesitant to speak out against the president, Trump's attacks on McCain have given the senator some cover to criticize him.
But not everyone thinks McCain's criticism of the president is justified or beneficial.
"Doesn't do anybody any good," Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., told The Arizona Republic when he was asked about the back-and-forth between the president and McCain over the Yemen raid. "I think Senator McCain is the one that needs to calm down a little bit ... The president won his election fair and square, and I think from the standpoint we need to start emulating what the commander in chief has got in mind."
"I mean Senator McCain ran for president and he would have expected the same thing, so we're not asking for anything different," Gosar continued.Not isolated from Trump administration
McCain and Trump may not agree on everything. But the Arizona senator has been thrilled with Trump’s Cabinet picks, particularly on the national security front.
“I couldn't have picked a better group of people,” he said during a CNN town hall last week, listing Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“I'm hoping — I'm not positive — but I'm hoping that he will rely on them for the advice and counsel because they have the respect of all of us who know anything about the military," he added.
McCain told The Republic that he may not have a strong connection with the White House but he does with members of Trump's Cabinet who handle national security issues.
“My conversations with (the administration) have been on national security issues, about the Iranian issue. We talked at length about the Iranian missile launch, we talked at length about the North Korean missile launch,” McCain said in an interview with The Republic in his Washington, D.C., office last month. “We’ve talked about a variety of national-security issues that really have to do with the Armed Services Committee.”