President Trump, after protests from veterans groups, broke two days of silence following the death of Sen. John McCain and on Monday belatedly issued the traditional statements honoring the Vietnam War hero and ordering flags to be flown at half-staff until his burial Sunday.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Sen. 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 about 4 p.m., after widespread condemnation of his failure to pay tribute despite McCain’s past criticisms.
Until then, Trump had only tweeted his condolences to McCain’s family on Saturday, without any praise for the senator. Even as McCain was known to be dying, as recently as this month Trump continued to criticize him at political rallies, though not by name, for voting against repealing the Affordable Care Act last year.
His official statement and proclamation came after the president — three separate times Monday — ignored questions from reporters just a few feet away. In one instance in the Oval Office, he silently glowered behind the historic Resolute Desk, arms folded, while being asked if he had anything to say about the legacy of McCain, who died Saturday at 81 after a long battle with brain cancer.
Trump, who has sought to present himself as an ardent backer of the military, relented only after two veterans groups delivered stinging rebukes for what they saw as an obvious lack of respect for McCain, a Navy aviator who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Trump famously derided McCain’s record in 2015, shortly after announcing his candidacy, by saying McCain was no hero simply because he had been captured.
“It’s outrageous that the White House would mark American hero John McCain’s death with a two-sentence tweet, making no mention of his heroic and inspiring life,” said Joe Chenelly, national director of American Veterans, commonly known as AMVETS.
Both AMVETS and the American Legion urged Trump to follow the traditional protocol of honoring McCain as other senators and public figures have been honored.
"Mr. President, just this year you released presidential proclamations noting the death of Barbara Bush and Billy Graham. Sen. John McCain was an American hero and a cherished member of the American Legion,” that group’s national commander, Denise Rohan, said in a statement.
She added, “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.”
About an hour after those statements were released, the White House flag was restored to half-staff, as it had been on Sunday. Shortly afterward, the administration released the president’s statement.
The White House also confirmed that Vice President Mike Pence would speak at the ceremony honoring McCain at the Capitol on Friday and that three senior administration officials would attend his funeral: retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff; Defense Secretary James N. Mattis; and national security advisor John Bolton. McCain had let it be known that he did not want Trump at his funeral.
As McCain has been praised by lawmakers in both parties for his lifetime of service to his country, Trump’s two-day silence spoke volumes about his lingering bitterness toward a senator who, in the winter of his life, often deployed his hard-won moral authority to criticize the president.
Ironically, Trump came under fire on Monday for disrespect involving the flag, the national symbol that he has invoked for two years to divide the country over the nonviolent protests of African American football players against racial injustice, wrongly claiming that they’re dishonoring the flag and veterans by kneeling during the pre-game playing of the national anthem.
When Washington awoke Monday, the country’s colors flew at half-staff atop government buildings throughout the city in honor of McCain. But at the White House, the flag had been raised back to full staff, sparking objections on social media, cable television shows and elsewhere.
Officially, the White House was not in violation of official protocol, which calls for the flag to be lowered on all federal buildings for one day after the death of a member of Congress. Other senators, however, have been honored for longer periods of time.
Trump has castigated rivals for years using the U.S. flag as a weapon. In 2006, he raised an over-sized flag on the grounds of Mar-a-Lago, his Florida golf resort, baiting the city of Palm Beach into suing him as part of an effort to win public support in his separate fight to expand the club.
In 2015, at the outset of his presidential campaign, Trump criticized President Obama, saying he waited too long to order the nation’s flags lowered following killings at a military recruiting center in Tennessee.
“This disgraceful omission is unacceptable and yet another example of our incompetent politicians,” Trump tweeted.