WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday ordered U.S. flags be flown at half-staff in honor of Sen. John McCain, issuing the directive hours after prominent veterans groups criticized the commander-in-chief for not publicly honoring the late Navy fighter pilot and Republican presidential nominee.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment,” Trump said in a statement released on Monday afternoon, hours after the White House came under criticism for raising its flag to full-staff as others throughout the country remained lowered at half-staff in memory of McCain.
The White House flags were initially lowered to half-staff on Saturday following the death of the longtime Arizona senator from brain cancer. They remained at half-staff a day later as dictated by federal code when a member of Congress dies, but without an order from Trump, the flags resumed their full-staff position Monday morning, prompting widespread backlash.
Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a bipartisan call for flags at federal facilities to remain at half-staff through sunset on Sunday when McCain is slated to be buried in a private ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Meanwhile, national veterans groups, including the American Legion and AMVETS, criticized the president for not issuing a presidential proclamation to honor McCain.
The American Legion, in a statement, urged Trump “to follow long-established protocol following the death of prominent government officials,” noting that in the past year Trump had signed proclamations honoring former first lady Barbara Bush and the late Rev. Billy Graham.
“Senator John McCain was an American hero and cherished member of The American Legion,” wrote the group’s commander, Denise Rohan, in a statement to Trump. “As I’m certain you are aware, he served five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and retired from the U.S. Navy at the rank of Captain. He then served in the U.S. Congress for more than three decades. On the behalf of The American Legion’s two million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment.”
Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, said in a statement: “By lowering flags for not one second more than the bare minimum required by law, despite a long-standing tradition of lowering flags until the funeral, the White House is openly showcasing its blatant disrespect for Senator McCain’s many decades of service and sacrifice to our country as well as the service of all his fellow veterans.”
The image of an American flag flying at full-staff over the White House on Monday morning, as flags at the U.S. Capitol Building remained at half-staff, underscored the strained relationship between the two powerful Republicans. Key parts of Trump’s White House agenda, including his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, were blocked by McCain’s decisive vote and his influence over the chamber in which he served for six terms.
On Saturday, the president tweeted his condolences to McCain’s family, but stopped short of acknowledging McCain directly, whom he previously mocked on the campaign trail for being captured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
McCain, a frequent critic of the president, reportedly requested Trump not be invited to his funeral service on Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral, where former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are expected to eulogize their onetime political rival turned friend.
Trump on Monday said he has directed “Vice President Mike Pence to offer an address” at Friday’s ceremony honoring McCain at the Capitol, where McCain’s body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
The president said he also “authorized military transportation of Senator McCain’s remains from Arizona to Washington, D.C., military pallbearers and band support, and a horse and caisson transport” for McCain’s burial service.
The president said his Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Adviser John Bolton will represent the administration at McCain’s services.
Read John McCain's farewell statement"To be connected to America's causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life's fleeting pleasures," he said. "Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves."
Later, at an evening dinner honoring evangelical leaders, he said “our hearts and prayers” are going to the family “and we very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.”