WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain said Monday that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump doesn't need to apologize to him for remarks about his captivity in Vietnam, but should tell veterans and their families that he's sorry.
Appearing in a nationally broadcast interview, the Arizona Republican said, "When Mr. Trump says he prefers to be with people who are not captured, the great honor of my life was to be in the company of heroes." But the occasionally fiery McCain had a calm demeanor, saying simply: "I am not a hero."
At another point in his interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe, he said, "I'm in the (political) arena," suggesting he's fair game for criticism as a U.S. senator.
In an opinion piece published Monday in USA Today, Trump said McCain had abandoned the nation's veterans and made America less secure through his votes in Congress. The real estate executive also lashed out at fellow GOP presidential aspirants who have criticized his remarks, calling them "failed politicians." Trump said he did not need "to be lectured by any of them."
"The reality is that John McCain the politician has made America less safe, sent our brave soldiers into wrong-headed foreign adventures, covered up for President (Barack) Obama with the VA scandal and has spent most of his time in the Senate pushing amnesty," Trump wrote. "He would rather protect the Iraqi border than Arizona's."
The op-ed comes as Trump is on the defensive for dismissing McCain's reputation as a war hero because McCain was captured in Vietnam and, "I like people who weren't captured."
In a contentious appearance on the NBC's Today show Monday, Trump took issue with the media's reporting on his comments about McCain's war record, made at a conservative forum in Iowa. He insisted in a telephone interview with anchor Matt Lauer that he had said "four times" that he respected those captured in war.
In his appearance, McCain said he believed it was "totally inappropriate for Mr. Trump to say he doesn't like to be with people who are captured."
"I think the point here is that there are so many men and women who served and sacrificed — and happened to be held prisoner — and to denigrate in any way that service, I think, is offensive to veterans."
"The best thing to do is put it behind us and move forward," McCain said
Earlier, GOP White House hopefuls shed their cautious approach to Trump's remarks in apparent efforts to calm the intraparty storm.
Trump has refused to apologize for disparaging comments he made about McCain's military service. He's also sought to use the furor over his remarks to remind supporters, especially those frustrated with Washington, that he's not a typical politician.
"You know the Republican Party — of course I was one of their darlings when I was a contributor," Trump said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I went from a darling to somebody that they're not happy with because I'm not a politician."
During a conservative forum in Iowa Saturday, Trump dismissed McCain's reputation as a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam and "I like people who weren't captured." His rivals spent much of the weekend condemning his comments and suggesting he was unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.
"It's not just absurd," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "It's offensive. It's ridiculous. And I do think it is a disqualifier as commander-in-chief."
Numerous other GOP candidates, including Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and Scott Walker, were similarly critical of Trump. The Republican National Committee also put its thumb on the scale, issuing a statement saying "there is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably."
Until now, Republicans have been largely cautious in their handling of Trump and his provocations.
While officials privately fretted about the damage he could do to the party, they are also worried about alienating voters drawn to his celebrity, brashness and willingness to take on establishment Republicans. He's emerged as one of the favorites early in a race that is bound to see shifts in the standing of many of the candidates.
Trump has made other eyebrow-raising comments since declaring his candidacy, most notably his assertion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. Many GOP candidates were slow and halting in their response to those comments, underscoring a continuing struggle to hit the right notes on immigration when they want to appeal to Hispanics without alienating traditional GOP voters.
But for a party that prides itself on its support for the military, Trump's comments about McCain were an easy opening. McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, enduring torture and refusing release ahead of fellow captives.