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Trump relents under pressure, lowers White House flag again to honour McCain

Donald Trump and McCain did not get along. The US president’s first response to the senator’s passing was a dry tweet that addressed the late senator’s family, not the departed leader.

world Updated: Aug 28, 2018 20:18 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
The White House flag flies at half staff in honor of Senator John McCain’s death in Washington on Monday.(Reuters Photo)

The American flag fluttering atop the White House became the focus of national attention for most of Monday as the US administration calibrated its response to the passing of Republican senator John McCain, also a national hero and an unrelenting critic of President Donald Trump.

From flying at half staff over the weekend since Saturday evening, when the McCain family announced the senator’s passing, it climbed back to the normal full staff position Monday morning and then dropped back to half mast after hours of mounting public outrage and derision.

No explanations were offered. “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.

McCain’s body will be laid to rest on Sunday, and flags on all government buildings – including the one over the White House and the adjoining office building – will fly at half staff until then.

Flags atop the two buildings were down at half mast after the senator’s passing on Saturday and stayed so through Sunday as the country mourned a war-hero who suffered five and half years of torture during the Vietnam War, served six terms in the US senate and ran twice for president. He was widely respected across the country, and across party lines.

Republican senator John McCain was a national hero and an unrelenting critic of President Donald Trump. ( REUTERS File )

Trump and McCain did not get along. The president’s first response to the senator’s passing was a dry tweet that addressed the late senator’s family, not the departed leader: “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!”

White House officials — chief of staff John Kelly and press secretary Sarah Sander — had planned to put out a more detailed statement, and one that described McCain as a war-hero. The president overruled them and sent out the tweet as his response, according to news reports.

The two men had differed on more than just policy and politics, the president conceded in his statement. Trump’s antipathy for McCain bordered on the personal. He had once questioned the senator being called a war hero because he got captured. “I like people who were not captured,” Trump had said, not mentioning his multiple deferments from military service during the Vietnam War over a bone spur. He still refuses to call McCain a war hero.

McCain was scathing in his criticism of the president, and opposed many of his executive and legislative initiatives and priorities — such as the repeal of Obamacare. More recently, he had termed Trump’s performance at a news conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin as “disgraceful”.

The senator, who had largely withdrawn from public life after being diagnosed with an aggressive strain of brain cancer in the summer of 2017, had also let it be known that he did not want President Trump to attend his funeral service. In a display of unity at a time of deepening political, racial and religious divisions, he instead requested former presidents George W Bush and Barak Obama – the Republican and Democrat who beat him in his two runs for the White House – to deliver his eulogy.

His funeral is slated to be held on Sunday.

McCain stressed on the importance of unity in his farewell message to the country, read out by a family spokesperson on Monday. “We are 325 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.

“Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”

President Trump has asked Vice-President Mike Pence to speak at a service at the US Capitol on Friday, and deputed chief of staff John Kelly, defense secretary James Mattis and national security advisor John Bolton to represent him at the Sunday service.

First Published: Aug 28, 2018 09:52 IST