WASHINGTON — The White House declined on Friday to renounce or apologize for an aide whose joke at a meeting that Senator John McCain was irrelevant because he would soon die went viral, outraging relatives, friends and admirers of the ailing lawmaker.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said she would not comment on a closed-door meeting where the joke was made. And she offered no words of regret over the remark or sympathy for Mr. McCain, a Republican senator and two-time presidential candidate who is battling brain cancer at his Arizona ranch.
“I’m not going to validate a leak one way or the other out of an internal staff meeting,” Ms. Sanders said. Asked why she would not simply apologize to Mr. McCain, she said, “I’m not going to get into a back and forth because, you know, people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.”
But she denied that President Trump, who in 2015 said that Mr. McCain was “not a war hero” because he spent more than five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam and that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,” had set a tone of disrespect. “We have a respect for all Americans and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, both in word and in action, focusing on doing things that help every American in this country, every single day,” Ms. Sanders said.
Mr. McCain’s friends lashed out at the White House for gross insensitivity. “People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday,” former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a statement. “Given this White House’s trail of disrespect toward John and others,” he added, “this staffer is not the exception to the rule; she is the epitome of it.”
The aide, Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president, made the comment on Thursday, just three days after Melania Trump unveiled what she called a “Be Best” campaign to encourage children to put kindness first in their lives. Contrary to what Ms. Sanders said, it came not during an internal White House staff meeting but during a session with congressional communications staff members.
The conversation turned to Mr. McCain’s opposition to Mr. Trump’s nominee for C.I.A. director because of her past ties to an interrogation program that used torture on terrorist suspects. “It doesn’t matter,” Ms. Sadler said, “He’s dying anyway.”
About 20 people were in the room; some gasped while a few laughed, according to some who were there, but no one challenged Ms. Sadler at the time. Some colleagues said afterward that they were unhappy she made the remark, and the White House issued a written statement Thursday expressing respect for Mr. McCain. But Ms. Sanders confirmed that Ms. Sadler was still on the job.
Ms. Sadler works in the White House communications office focusing on illegal immigration. According to an online biography, she graduated from Hamilton College in 2002 with a degree in Chinese and international relations and later earned a master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University. She has worked as a management consultant and then as a reporter for Bloomberg and later The Washington Times.
Mr. McCain’s family expressed astonishment and outrage after the remark became known. “May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren,” his wife, Cindy McCain, wrote to Ms. Sadler on Twitter.
Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, responded on “The View,” the ABC television show where she is a host. “I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in where that would be acceptable and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job,” she said.
Ms. Sadler has made no public comment but called Meghan McCain to apologize.
Ms. Sadler’s comment came on the same day a retired Air Force three-star general went on Fox Business Network to deride Mr. McCain’s conduct as a prisoner of war. Mr. McCain was brutally and repeatedly beaten but refused early release unless other captives were also freed. But in discussing Ms. Haspel’s nomination, the retired general, Thomas G. McInerney, rejected Mr. McCain’s opposition to torture.
“The fact is, is John McCain, it worked on John,” he said. “That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John.’”
That also drew a rebuke from Cindy McCain. “Please choose your guest more wisely,” she wrote to Fox Business and the host, Charles V. Payne, on Twitter.
Mr. Payne went back on air later in the day to apologize for what he called “false and derogatory” remarks, saying he did not hear them because a producer was speaking in his ear at the moment.
“If I’d heard what he said the right way, I would have pushed back,” Mr. Payne said. “I didn’t. I blew it.” As a military veteran himself, Mr. Payne added, “Those reprehensible comments do not reflect how I feel or how this network feels about Senator McCain.”
Fox said on Friday that it had cut ties with Mr. McInerney and would no longer book him as a commentator.
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.