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John McCain has a 3-step strategy for talking about Donald Trump

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) Speaks To Reporters About Recent Stories Surrounding Trump Officials And Russian Intelligence Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

John McCain just offered a master class in how to talk about President Trump’s rocky debut on the world stage: acknowledge there’s no evidence for Trump’s wiretapping claims, praise the administration’s national security team while ignoring Trump’s more egregious missteps, and when all else fails, blame Barack Obama.

The lessons came in a Wednesday roundtable with reporters that featured the Arizona senator, who is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, who runs the House Armed Services Committee.

Both men touched on substantive issues of national security, from the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan (McCain said the US should send more troops) to the escalating crisis with North Korea (their consensus was that Washington needed to get China to rein in Pyongyang) to a potential showdown with Turkey over the future of the fight against ISIS (McCain said the Turkish government was prepared to cut American access to a vital airbase if Washington armed a powerful Kurdish militia). For good measure, McCain said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was working to amass enough power to be a “dictator.”

But the most striking moments of the session came when McCain addressed questions about Trump’s credibility and effectiveness. McCain has emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics, even though the journalists and pundits holding him up as a maverick bucking his own party’s president rarely focus on the fact that McCain voted for even Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks.

The careful line the veteran lawmaker and onetime GOP presidential candidate is trying to tread in the Trump era was on full display during his conversation with reporters this morning. Here are the three ways he managed to finesse it.

Step 1: Criticize Trump’s tweets and wiretap claims, then try to change topics

When I asked McCain whether Trump’s claims that President Obama tapped his communications had now been conclusively disproven, the senator had a short and blunt answer: “Yes.”

Earlier in the conversation, McCain referenced “all this other tweet stuff” that surrounds Trump, but didn’t say which of Trump’s many garbled or flatly untrue statements he was referring to. (McCain had a lot to choose from: FBI Director James Comey began a high-profile congressional hearing this week by refuting Trump’s mid-February wiretapping tweets and ended the hearing by refuting a misleading tweet Trump sent out during the hearing itself).

McCain also shied away from giving a direct answer to a direct question about whether Trump had a “credibility problem” that could hamper his ability to lead the nation in a crisis or maintain close relationships with vital US allies. The senator instead credited Trump for having “surrounded himself with an outstanding national security team.”

McCain has a good reason for wanting to shift away from Trump’s tweets as quickly as possible: Defending the president’s national security team is much easier than trying to defend the president himself.

Step 2: Praise Trump’s national security team and hint they can keep him under control

Again and again in the hour-long session, McCain went out of his way to praise Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a serving Army lieutenant general. This gives you a taste:

“He has surrounded himself with an outstanding national security team.”

“He couldn’t have picked a better team.”

“The people around the president are as talented and respected as any I’ve seen.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of young officers who are excited about the fact that they will serve under Gen. Mattis [and] that Gen. McMaster is national security adviser.”

“Everything that you’ve seen is that the president does listen to these generals.”

McCain’s comments reflect the fact that many US officials and lawmakers from both parties — as well as the leaders of an array of US allies overseas — cheered the Mattis and McMaster appointments, seeing both men as powerful checks on some of Trump’s most dangerous impulses.

Both men are Russia hawks who are strongly committed to NATO — views that line up with McCain but run counter to Trump’s criticism of the alliance as obsolete and his ongoing string of strangely pro-Kremlin comments.

McCain has made clear since the election that he’s willing to criticize Trump. On Wednesday, he offered a clear reminder that he’s willing to criticize Trump’s predecessor even more harshly.

Step 3: When all else fails, blame Obama

McCain ran against Obama in 2008, and has grown steadily more bitter toward him ever since. During Obama’s two terms in office, McCain blasted him for being too soft on Russia, too quick to withdraw troops from Iraq, too reluctant to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and too naive in his dealings with Iran.

Obama’s departure from the White House hasn’t softened McCain’s fury; if anything, it seems to have sharpened it. At the roundtable, McCain said the US was “facing a world in disarray, with greater challenges than ever before,” and laid the blame squarely at the feet of the last president.

“It’s not [Trump’s] fault we’re in the situation we’re in,” McCain said angrily. “It’s Barack Obama.”

During the Wednesday session, McCain repeatedly said Obama had turned power over to “30-year-old know-nothings” on the National Security Council, including a “music major.” The comment was a clear if implicit reference to Ben Rhodes, a young Obama aide who joined the Obama campaign as a 29-year-old speechwriter and wound up as his deputy national security adviser. (Rhodes’s major was English, not music, but McCain’s target was clear all the same.)

McCain contrasted that with Trump’s decision to give the Pentagon more freedom to carry out raids and drone strikes without prior White House approval. “You don’t have to ask the 30-something-year-olds for permission to respond,” McCain said.

That’s true: In the Trump years, some of those questions are going to Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law instead.