WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump lashed out at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday, saying that the senator's negative assessment of a deadly raid in Yemen last month "emboldens the enemy!"
McCain initially referred to the raid as "a failure" but later dialed back his criticism, saying in a statement Tuesday that some objectives were fulfilled in the mission but that he would "not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success."
The Jan. 28 raid on al-Qaida — billed as an intelligence-gathering operation — turned into an hour-long gunfight as Navy SEALs and troops from the United Arab Emirates clashed with well-entrenched al-Qaida fighters.
One of the SEALs, Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, was killed. Five other service members were wounded by hostile fire and a hard landing after a Marine transport aircraft crashed near the raid site.
"Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media," Trump said in a series of tweets Thursday morning. "Only emboldens the enemy! He's been losing so long he doesn't know how to win anymore."
"Our hero Ryan died on a winning mission ... not a 'failure,' " Trump tweeted.
The president's attack on McCain, a fellow Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, came a day after White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly said during a news briefing that the raid was a "huge success" and that questioning it does a "disservice" to Owens.
Asked about McCain at the Wednesday briefing, Spicer did not back down, saying his criticism applied to "anybody."
Last week, Spicer stopped short of calling the raid an unqualified success, telling reporters: "I think it's hard to ever say something was successful when you lose a life."
McCain would not comment Thursday on Trump's tweets about him, telling reporters his responsibility and focus were on his committee.
But other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in both parties, had plenty to say to Trump in McCain's defense.
"That's a dangerous error, for President Trump to continue to trash John McCain," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, adding that McCain "is a guy who knows what he's talking about" when it comes to the military.
McCain's closest friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., added that the Trump administration should be more careful about how he tries to cast the Yemen raid to the public.
"One thing I would advise the Trump administration is: Don't oversell success," Graham said, noting that he thought the Obama administration oversold the success of various missions, to its detriment. He also advised to focus on finding common ground with Congress instead of picking fights with members like McCain.
"I don't think President Trump will have a better ally in the United States Congress when it comes to rebuilding the military than John McCain," Graham said.
Yemeni officials said the operation killed 15 women and children, including the 8-year-old daughter of the Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike. Photos of the dead civilians were posted on social media after the raid. Although the Pentagon initially denied reports of civilian deaths, officials later acknowledged that some had been killed and said they were "assessing reports" on casualties.
Trump and McCain have sparred regularly since Trump began his presidential campaign. While a candidate, Trump questioned McCain's status as a war hero. The senator, a Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient, spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war after being captured when his bomber was shot down in North Vietnam.