/Debbie Dingell Calls for Civility After Trump Insults Her Late Husband
Debbie Dingell Calls for Civility After Trump Insults Her Late Husband

Debbie Dingell Calls for Civility After Trump Insults Her Late Husband

The president had joked about a conversation with Ms. Dingell after the death of her husband, former congressman John Dingell, at a rally in Michigan.

Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Katie Rogers

WASHINGTON — One widow instantly knew how the other one felt.

“I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love,” one said.

“I’m terribly sorry,” the other replied. “Please know I am thinking about you.”

The Twitter exchange sounded like a salutation between two women facing the season alone, but the message of support from Cindy McCain, the widow of John McCain, the Arizona senator, to Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, was about a different shared experience.

It was a message of solidarity sent after President Trump had mocked Ms. Dingell (“You know Dingell? You ever hear of her, Michigan? Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty.”) and implied that her husband — John D. Dingell Jr., the former Michigan congressman who died in February — was “looking up” from hell. Ms. McCain’s own husband has been the object of relentless presidential attacks since he died.

In an interview on Thursday, hours after Mr. Trump became the third president in history to be impeached — an outcome she voted for — Ms. Dingell said that her husband “was never afraid to fight for what was right” but that the president’s remarks about him had cut deep.

“He hurt me,” Ms. Dingell said. “I think there’s some things that should be off limits.”

Mr. Trump has freely and frequently brought the power of his office down on a variety of journalists, lawmakers, Foreign Service officers and members of the military he has seen as standing in his way.

But Ms. Dingell is now joining the ranks of a more select group that includes the McCains and a Gold Star military family, who have suffered profound loss only to see it mocked and used as political ammunition by the president.

Ms. Dingell said on Thursday that she was still grieving the loss of her husband, who was the longest-serving congressman in American history. He retired from Congress in 2014 after serving his district, just outside Detroit, for 59 years. His wife, who now holds his seat, called for civility as she faced her first Christmas in 38 years without her husband.

“If anything good comes out of this,” Ms. Dingell said, “maybe people will take a deep breath and think about it.”

But Mr. Trump is not prone to contemplation. At his rally on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump was speaking off the cuff to supporters as he called out Democrats like Ms. Dingell, who had voted in favor of the two articles of impeachment against him. But the president singled her out because she had done so after he approved an “A-plus treatment” for her husband’s burial.

“So she calls me up: ‘It’s the nicest thing that’s ever happened; thank you so much,’” Mr. Trump said at the rally, mocking the congresswoman’s voice while recounting their call. He suggested that Ms. Dingell had begged for him to lower American flags to half-staff and, apparently impersonating her, said: “Do this, do that, do that. Rotunda.”

Mr. Dingell did not lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda — Ms. Dingell said on Thursday that that had not been one of his requests. Still, Mr. Trump said Ms. Dingell had said her husband would be thrilled as he looked down and saw how the country was honoring him.

“Maybe he’s looking up,” Mr. Trump said at one point. “I don’t know. I don’t know, maybe. Maybe. But let’s assume he’s looking down.”

Ms. Dingell said the president had ordered American flags lowered, but beyond that, Mr. Dingell’s military service in World War II made him eligible for the only request he had made, which was to be buried at Arlington National Ceremony. At the time, she said, she had welcomed the president’s call — emphasizing that he called her.

“He was very kind,” Ms. Dingell said. “He had told me that he heard he was a great man and I thought it was very thoughtful for him to call at a time when I was really grieving.”

But Mr. Trump’s public remarks about their exchange were condemned by both Republicans — including Representative Fred Upton, who faces re-election next year in Michigan — and Democrats, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a leading 2020 candidate whose own political life has been punctuated by loss.

“This is equally as cruel as it is pathetic,” Mr. Biden, whose son Beau died in 2015, said on Twitter, “and it is beyond unconscionable that our President would behave this way.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has also been called “crazy” and “nervous” by Mr. Trump as she steered her caucus toward impeachment, said there was nothing funny about what Mr. Trump said.

“What the president misunderstands is that cruelty is not wit,” she said. “It’s not funny at all. It’s very sad.”

Mr. Upton, a close friend of Mr. Dingell’s who delivered a eulogy for him, called on the president to apologize, and said on Twitter, “There was no need to ‘dis’ him in a crass political way.”

Representative Paul Mitchell, another Michigan Republican, also said the president’s comments warranted an apology. “To use his name in such a dishonorable manner at last night’s rally is unacceptable from anyone, let alone the president of the United States,” he said. “An apology is due, Mr. President.”

The Trump campaign had no comment about whether the president’s comments could affect his political fortunes in Michigan, a state he narrowly won in 2016. Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, also sidestepped the question.

“I have great respect for the Dingells’ decades of service to the state of Michigan and I’m very sorry for Representative Debbie Dingell’s loss,” Ms. McDaniel said in a statement. “I was glad to see the late Representative John Dingell honored so highly by the president when he passed away.”

As the criticism mounted, the White House did not apologize and instead suggested that the public consider how Mr. Trump might feel about being impeached.

“He has been under attack, and under impeachment attack, for the last few months, and then just under attack politically for the last two and a half years,” Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said in an interview with ABC on Thursday. “I think that as we all know, the president is a counterpuncher.”

She declined to explain how Mr. Dingell, who died 10 months ago, had thrown the first punch.

The president’s rough comments on his adversaries have earned him condemnation from grieving families before. In 2016, Mr. Trump criticized the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, who had denounced the president during the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Trump said Captain Khan’s father had delivered the entire speech because his mother was not “allowed” to speak.

Khizr Khan, the soldier’s father, said he felt a sense of recognition when he heard that Mr. Trump had mocked the Dingell family.

“All three of them have served this nation and they have passed,” Mr. Khan said of his son, Mr. Dingell and Mr. McCain. “They deserve to be respected.”

Mr. Trump has particularly fixated on Mr. McCain, who died in 2018 from complications from brain cancer and, as he was dying, made plans to keep the president away from his funeral.

After Mr. McCain died, Mr. Trump waited days to issue a proclamation marking the senator’s death, relenting only under enormous pressure. He has repeatedly brought up Mr. McCain’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act at his political rallies. And when Mr. Trump traveled to Japan in May, the White House asked the Navy to hide a destroyer named after Mr. McCain during the president’s visit to Yokosuka Naval Base.

The senator’s daughter, Meghan McCain, offered her own sharp criticism on Thursday.

“The comments from Trump about Rep Dingell is utterly sick and cruel,” Ms. McCain said on Twitter. “Take heed in knowing he only attacks people for whom he is threatened by their great legacies. History will forever judge him very harshly.”

The McCain family declined to comment further. But for her part, Ms. Dingell said she did not want the president to call her again, even if he had an apology.

“No,” Ms. Dingell said. “He’s taken his shot.”

Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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