The tone starts at the top.
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed outrage over a Trump press aide’s casual dismissal of the opposition of U.S. John McCain, R-Arizona, to the nomination of Gina Haspel as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” Trump special assistant Kelly Sadler said.
McCain, 81, battles brain cancer.
Sadler’s comment was a mean, shabby thing to say, even in jest.
Any decent person would have apologized at once.
Any decent White House would have disavowed the remark just as fast.
Therein lies the problem.
Sadler works in an administration that takes umbrage whenever someone – anyone – suggests that Donald Trump might not be a greater president than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and both Roosevelts combined or purer than Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
But this White House doesn’t apologize or retract anything, no matter how outrageous, offensive or untrue.
The only time Donald Trump has apologized for anything he’s said or done since he began his run for the presidency came when the infamous groin-grabber “Access Hollywood” video surfaced. His campaign staff told him he would have to say he was sorry if he was to save his campaign, so he did so, grudgingly and gracelessly.
Then, later, he denied he’d made the comments on the tape, even though the audio and video evidence proved otherwise.
Trump and his people think this determination not to acknowledge wrongdoing or mistakes makes them seem tough.
They’re not tough.
There’s a difference, one they likely never will understand.
John McCain, on the other hand, is tough.
He was held prisoner for years during the Vietnam War. During that time, he was tortured, again and again and again. The repeated tortures left him with lasting injuries that would have debilitated a lesser man.
It is because of that experience – those years of torture – that McCain opposes Haspel’s nomination to lead the CIA. Haspel has countenanced torture as an interrogation technique in the past – a position she has yet to convincingly disavow.
McCain’s opposition to torture is two-pronged.
He says it’s ineffective because it encourages the tortured to tell their captors whatever they want to hear just to make the pain stop.
More important, it’s immoral.
America’s refusal to torture is supposed to be one of the ways we demonstrate we’re the good guys.
I often don’t agree with John McCain, but I always have respected him. He arrives at his positions out of honest conviction. Even when I think his stance to be wrong-headed, I believe it to be sincerely wrong-headed.
On the matter of making torture a feature of American foreign policy and law, though, I am with McCain foursquare.
Proponents of torture most often make the lowest-common-denominator argument – that we’re justified in resorting to it because our enemies do so.
Since when, though, do we allow people we consider evil to determine our standards of conduct? Do we want to allow evildoers to decide what’s right or moral?
Do we want to be the good guys or join the bad guys?
It is because McCain has authority, both moral and of experience, to speak about the issue of torture that the Trump White House seeks to belittle or dismiss his voice and views.
That’s why the focus in the administration isn’t on apologizing for Sadler’s remark, but rather on determining who leaked it and punishing that person.
In the world the Trump team has constructed of tough-guy fantasies, facts such as John McCain’s history with and intimate knowledge of torture must not be allowed to intrude.
We can’t expect much else from this president and the people who work for him. Their investment in preserving the unreality in which they operate is deep.
The Republicans in Congress who could serve as the only checks on this administration’s repeated assaults on basic decency and honor are another matter.
They have condoned much from Donald Trump and his team.
Even though they fulminate now about the gratuitous insult delivered to one of their congressional colleagues – the GOP’s standard-bearer in 2008 – the bet here is that they will end up accepting this outrage, too.
In doing so, they besmirch their own reputations.
And they stain their own souls.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.