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Flags at White House return to half-staff in tribute to McCain

The White House flag was back at half-staff Aug. 27, after it was raised to full-staff. It was lowered over the weekend following the death of Sen. John McCain. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump on Monday ordered the American flag to be flown at half-staff this week in honor of Sen. John McCain after intense criticism of his response to the Arizona Republican’s death.

The announcement came after the flag atop the White House was raised to full-staff earlier in the day, less than 48 hours after McCain’s family announced that the six-term senator had died Saturday at his home in Sedona, Ariz.

“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.

Obituary: John McCain, ‘maverick’ of the Senate and former POW, dies at 81

Earlier in the day, Trump ignored almost a dozen shouted questions from reporters asking for his views about McCain, who was a persistent critic of the president.

The Arizona Republican spent decades in the Senate. He endured more than five years of imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Trump had blocked efforts over the weekend to release a statement honoring McCain and calling him a “hero,” instead expressing condolences to McCain’s family via Twitter on Saturday night without offering praise for the senator.

The statement he released Monday also said Trump has requested that Vice President Pence speak at Capitol Hill services honoring McCain on Friday, and that Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Ambassador John Bolton represent his administration at services being held this week.

Trump was not invited to the funeral scheduled for this weekend. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are scheduled to deliver eulogies.

U.S. code calls for flags to be lowered in the event of the death of a member of Congress “on the day of death and the following day.” But presidents have the power to issue proclamations extending that period, and have done so routinely.

The episode was the latest involving Trump and the powerful symbolism of the American flag. For months, he has castigated NFL players who choose to kneel during the national anthem, accusing them at political rallies and in other settings of disrespecting the flag. Trump has also threatened to strip the citizenship of those who burn the flag.

Senate leaders had sought to have flags remain at half-staff until Sunday, when McCain, a former Navy pilot, is scheduled to be buried in the cemetery on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

On Monday morning, flags at the U.S. Capitol, where McCain served two terms in the House and six terms in the Senate, remained at half-staff. Congressional aides said they expect that the tribute there will continue.

In a tweet Monday morning, Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said that he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had asked the Department of Defense to “provide necessary support so that U.S. flags on all government buildings remain at half mast through sunset on the day of Senator McCain’s interment.”

David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, confirmed his involvement, saying it was a standard request when a senator dies.

In 2009, after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Obama ordered flags to fly at half-staff for five days. As is typically the case, that order extended well beyond the White House, to include U.S. embassies and military installations around the world.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss called the fully raised flags at the White House earlier Monday “sickening” during an appearance on MSNBC. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, meanwhile, wrote on Twitter: “The White House is now an island of bitterness and resentment in a nation united in respect and appreciation.” Others on Twitter responded using the hashtag #NoRespect.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), an Iraq War veteran, said in a tweet that Trump “is living proof that money does not buy class.”

The American Legion, a veterans organization, also called on Trump to treat McCain with more reverence.

“On 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 internment,” Denise Rohan, the group’s national commander, said in a statement.

Trump and McCain had a bitter relationship that lasted through McCain’s final days.

After the senator’s death, Trump posted a tweet that offered his “deepest sympathies and respect” to McCain’s family but made no mention of McCain’s storied service in the military and in the Senate.

Trump rejected plans for a White House statement praising McCain

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump had rejected the advice of top aides who advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a hero.

Marc Short, Trump’s former legislative director, said the president faced “a little bit of a situation of a Catch-22” when deciding how to respond to McCain’s death.

“If the president put out a flowery statement about John McCain’s life, the media would criticize it and say it’s not consistent with the other things he’s said in the past, and it would become a story about the president,” Short said during an appearance on CNN.

Several White House aides echoed Short, saying Trump was in a no-win situation and vetoed a statement partly because he didn’t want to seem disingenuous. “Everyone knows we don’t like each other,” the president said, according to one senior White House official. 

Short said he personally considers McCain “an American hero who served our country nobly.”

Bad blood between McCain and Trump lingers

Throughout McCain’s battle with brain cancer, Trump continued to publicly snub him — including at a recent appearance in which the president declined to say McCain’s name when signing a bill that was named for the senator. Trump earlier disparaged McCain’s Vietnam War service, saying he was “not a war hero” despite McCain’s years as a POW who was tortured. McCain’s plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 during a bombing run.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, McCain did not hesitate to speak candidly about policy differences with Trump, including the president’s friendly posture toward Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

During an event Monday morning in the Oval Office on trade with Mexico, Trump was asked by a reporter about his thoughts on McCain’s legacy. Trump did not respond. He was silent later when reporters tried again during a meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Earlier Monday morning, Trump made no mention of McCain on Twitter as he addressed other matters.

Trump praised former NFL running back Jim Brown for having said he plans to support Trump’s reelection in 2020. And the president praised professional golfer Tiger Woods for not criticizing him when a reporter asked him a leading question about Trump’s immigration policies at a weekend tournament.

Over the weekend, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered state flags there to be lowered to half-staff in honor of McCain until his burial Sunday.