John McCain and Donald Trump have never been close, and they don’t share agreement now on a variety of foreign policy and defense questions. They have engaged in several testy exchanges in the past, but their mutual antipathy now goes beyond testiness. Mr. McCain, a senior senator and former presidential nominee of the Republican Party — and with the eminence that those credentials accord — traveled across the Atlantic the other day to deliver what one analyst calls “a calculated, planned attack on Trump’s entire system of beliefs.” This is without modern precedent, and it was out of bounds.
To be sure, the president has asked for the sting of the senator’s anger. He has attacked Mr. McCain in sharp and personal ways, beginning with mean and silly aspersions on his unselfish and heroic military service. No one who has seen war up close would treat Mr. McCain’s sacrifice in the war in Vietnam, where many heroes were unappreciated, with anything but admiration and respect. Mr. Trump did himself no credit by joining those mean-spirited critics.
Nevertheless, the senator’s description of the president, to a security conference in Munich where nobody could miss the point of his remarks, was very close to a declaration of war on the president. The fact that he made the remarks on foreign soil is particularly offensive. The senator knew better, but let his anger, perhaps understandable, get the best of him.
The senator apparently accepts the Democratic line that Mr. Trump resides today at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue only because Vladimir Putin successfully manipulated American public opinion and thereby influenced the election in the 50 separate American states. He vows to open an investigation of the extent to which Mr. Trump’s clear and open wish to ease tensions with Moscow could be payback for the help in taking down Hillary Clinton in November.
The Russians have been trying for decades to interfere in U.S. elections, with no success. Anyone who thinks Hillary Clinton was defeated by Russian machinations has no confidence in the common sense of the American voter, and his ability see when he is being trifled with by foreigners.
To equate American help for democratic candidates abroad, offered in the open, to whatever malignant interference there may have been by the Russians, smacks of the moral equivalence that is so dear to some American liberals. All nations pursue their interests in the real world, some by means fair, and some by means foul.
The basis of Mr. McCain’s objection to President Trump’s view of the world is deeper than mere personal differences, or to Russian attempts to influence American public opinion. Mr. Trump, during his campaign and since, has rejected the militantly neoconservative worldview that John McCain champions. What Mr. Trump sees as a need to put American interests first in dealing with the world, Mr. McCain sees as a rejection of the desire to remake the world in the American image. That is a debate long overdue, and worth having now. But it should be conducted on a higher level than partisan attacks on the president, and it’s a debate to have here at home.