White House press secretary Sarah Sanders privately berated the White House communications and press staff Friday after a leak the previous day of comments by aide Kelly Sadler about Sen. John McCain, according to several sources familiar with the meeting.
In discussing McCain's opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel, Sadler, a special assistant who handles surrogate communications for the White House, said in a private meeting Thursday that it doesn't matter "because he's dying anyway." It was a joke that fell flat, a White House official told CNN.
Despite publicly refusing to criticize the remark, Sanders told the press staff that Sadler's comment was inappropriate, according to several sources familiar with the meeting.
During the dressing down, Sanders focused more on how the remark was leaked apparently in an attempt to target Sadler with a damaging story, one of the sources told CNN.
White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp spoke up during the session to defend Sadler, one of the sources said.
Both publicly and privately, according to the sources, Sanders has focused more on the leaking of the comment than its substance.
In Friday's White House press briefing, Sanders repeatedly said she would not "validate a leak" or comment on an internal staff meeting.
Asked directly why not simply apologize to McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer, and his family, she said: "I'm not going to get into a back and forth because people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings."
Sadler is still employed at the White House, Sanders said Friday.
Responding Saturday to the controversial comments, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Sadler's remarks a "disgusting thing to say" and said he was dissatisfied with the administration's response to the controversy.
"If it was a joke, it was a terrible joke," Graham, who is close friends with McCain and visited him in Arizona this week, told "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan in an excerpt of an interview set to air Sunday. "I just wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that was inappropriate, that's not who we are in the Trump administration."
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney pushed back Saturday on calls to fire the aide, saying the purported joke about McCain's health was "awful" but not worth firing her over.
"You have to have freedom to speak in a private meeting, to speak candidly," Mulvaney said Saturday on Fox News. "We've all said things in private, especially in smaller groups that we work with, that we would never say publicly."
Echoing Sanders' private comments to staffers, Mulvaney said the leak was designed to hurt Sadler and "completely ignored the harm it would do to the McCain family, which is doubly inconsiderate."
"I'm really disappointed that someone would undermine the President by leaking that out of a private meeting," he said, adding that he, as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, was not present at the meeting in which Sadler made the remark.
After her comment was reported Thursday, Sadler called Meghan McCain, the senator's daughter, to apologize for the remark, a source close to the situation told CNN.
Mulvaney told Fox News that in doing so, Sadler handled the situation "appropriately."
However, on "The View" Friday, McCain questioned how Sadler still had her job.