WASHINGTON (CNN) — White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Saturday that a communications staffer’s joke about Sen. John McCain’s health was “awful,” but he pushed back on calls to fire the aide.

“You have to have freedom to speak in a private meeting, to speak candidly,” Mulvaney said on Fox News. “We’ve all said things in private, especially in smaller groups that we work with, that we would never say publicly.”

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Kelly Sadler

Kelly Riddell Sadler (Source: Facebook / Kelly Sadler)

Kelly Sadler, a special assistant who handles surrogate communications for the White House, told other aides in a private meeting Thursday that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel does not matter because “he’s dying anyway,” a White House official told CNN.

“I’m really disappointed that someone would undermine the President by leaking that out of a private meeting,” said Mulvaney, who added that he, as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, was not present at the communications team’s private meeting.

Mulvaney argued that the leak was designed to hurt Sadler and “completely ignored the harm it would do to the McCain family, which is doubly inconsiderate.”

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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, although it’s unclear how McCain responded.

Mulvaney told Fox News that in doing so, Sadler handled the situation “appropriately.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at a news briefing Friday that she would not “validate a leak” or comment on an internal staff meeting.

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