WASHINGTON — After a daylong controversy, President Donald Trump ordered all flags at military bases and federal buildings to be flown at half-staff in honor of Navy veteran and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and one of the Republican Party’s most influential defense policy voices, died Saturday, Aug. 25 of brain cancer. Since Saturday night, political leaders from around the globe have issued statements lauding his lifetime of public service.
Flags at federal facilities were lowered in his honor on Saturday, a traditional custom for significant public figures. But those flags were raised to full height again Monday morning, after a period several veterans groups complained was too short. Flags on Capitol Hill remained lowered the entire day.
Leadership from AMVETS, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars ― among other groups ― petitioned Trump to reverse his decision and lower the flags again. On Monday afternoon, he relented.
“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 his first formal remarks since McCain’s death.
The president did take to Twitter shortly after news broke of McCain’s passing to express “my deepest sympathies and respect (for) the family of Senator John McCain,” but critics had lamented the lack of an official statement honoring the war hero.
Trump also said he has authorized military transport for McCain from Arizona to Washington, where McCain will lie in state in the Capitol building, and a horse and caisson transport during his interment service at the United States Naval Academy.
Vice President Mike Pence will offer remarks at the Capitol ceremony. Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton will represent the administration at the funeral services. News reports said McCain asked that Trump not attend his funeral.
McCain and Trump sparred frequently and openly in recent years, beginning when Trump during his election campaign mocked the Vietnam War veteran’s status as a war hero.
“He's a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said in July 2015. “I like people that weren't captured.”
Trump did not apologize for those comments, even after numerous veterans groups called them insensitive and offensive. Since then, McCain was a vocal critic of Trump’s national security policies, including his handling of relations with Russia, and his penchant for controversial statements on social media.
The new flag order — “a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding service of McCain — mandates the flag be flown at half-staff at the White House, all federal buildings, military posts, naval stations and foreign U.S. embassies until Sunday evening.
Just a few hours before the proclamation, McCain’s family released a statement written by the ailing senator before his death. The farewell address thanked his family members for their support and America for allowing him to serve in public office and the military.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” he wrote. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
“We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement.
“If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.