Special assistant Kelly Sadler made the derisive comments during a closed-door White House meeting of about two-dozen communications staffers on Thursday morning.
“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” Sadler said, according to a source familiar with the remarks at the meeting.
The White House did not deny the account of Sadler’s remarks, which came amid a discussion of Haspel’s nomination and McCain’s opposition to it.
“We respect Senator McCain’s service to our nation and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time,” the White House said in a statement to The Hill.
Sadler did not respond to a request for comment and the White House did not make her available to The Hill. A source later told The Hill that Sadler called the senator’s daughter Meghan McCain to apologize.
The Thursday morning meeting was led by deputy press secretary Raj Shah. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not present. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway showed up to the meeting after the remark was made, according to the first source.
A source who heard Sadler’s remarks could not confirm her exact wording, but agreed that Sadler made comments along the lines described by the first source.
Both sources said they believed the comment was intended as a joke, but that it did not go over well with others at the meeting.
There was “discomfort” in the room after Sadler’s comment and the conversation continued without addressing it, according to the second source.
Sadler is a former opinion editor for The Washington Times. At the White House, she focuses on illegal immigration, often sending out press releases to highlight stories about the issue to reporters.
The White House is engaged in a high-stakes nomination fight for Haspel, who faces opposition from many senators for her association with harsh interrogation techniques as a CIA agent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, urged his Senate colleagues to oppose Haspel’s nomination, saying that “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
The president has long had a fraught relationship with McCain, who has been a sharp and unrelenting critic of Trump and his administration.
In a speech shortly after announcing his presidential bid in 2015, Trump responded to criticism from McCain by saying “he’s not a war hero” because he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.
“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said at the time.
McCain’s office declined to comment on Sadler’s remark.
The New York Times reported last week that McCain’s allies informed the White House that they would like Vice President Pence to attend McCain’s funeral, but not Trump. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are expected to give eulogies at the memorial.
McCain has a new book coming out, “The Restless Wave,” and he has remained engaged as he recovers at home in Phoenix.
In the book, McCain rips Trump for his rhetoric on immigrants and refugees; alleges that the president’s attacks on the press are being mimicked by dictators abroad; and says he “doesn’t know what to make of President Trump’s convictions.”
McCain also confirmed that he passed along the infamous “Steele dossier” to the FBI, which was later presented as evidence to a secret spy court to justify eavesdropping on Trump campaign officials.
“I did what any American who cares about our nation’s security should have done,” McCain writes.
At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, senators grilled Haspel over the use of controversial interrogation techniques. Haspel told senators that torture “does not work” and that she would defy orders to restart the programs. But she dodged questions about whether she believed it to be “immoral.”
Haspel needs support from 50 senators for confirmation and Republicans have only a slim 51-49 majority in the upper chamber. McCain and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have already announced their opposition, but Haspel has picked up support from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is running for reelection this year in a state Trump carried by 42 points in 2016.
Updated: 8:56 p.m.