Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie defended then-candidate Donald Trump's 2015 comments disparaging John McCain's service in the Vietnam War, telling CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the comments were made "in the heat of the campaign."

Flashback: Trump publicly rejected the notion that McCain, who was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was a war hero. “He’s not a war hero," Trump said. "He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured."

What they're saying: "I understand politics, I understand name-calling when it comes from both sides," Wilkie said.

  • "It's the heat of a campaign. I judge a man by his actions, and the actions have been beneficial for veterans all across this country in ways that we have not seen since the end of World War II. And I would also say the same for the United States military."
  • "I was the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. I watched this President sign letters of condolences to those who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was on the front lines then, so I'm judging the president by what he's done as president."

Why it matters: Trump and his allies have been playing defense over a story in The Atlantic that alleged, based on anonymous sources, that Trump called soldiers who die in war "losers" and "suckers."

  • The White House has denied the story, which also details other allegations of disparaging comments Trump has privately made about veterans.
  • Reporters from the AP, Washington Post and Fox News are among those who have confirmed aspects of the story.

The big picture: Trump's attacks on McCain, who famously sank the Republicans' efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act before his death in 2018, did not stop after the 2016 campaign.

  • In March of 2019, seven months after McCain's death, Trump sent out a series of tweets attacking the late senator.
  • The president addressed his criticism of McCain on Friday in the midst of the furor over The Atlantic story, saying at a press briefing, "I never got along with John McCain. I wasn't a fan. I disagreed with many of his views. That doesn't mean I don't respect him."

Go deeper ... The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg: "I stand by my reporting"

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Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

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