President Trump reversed course Monday, ending his conspicuous silence about the death of his political rival Sen. John McCain.
The American flag over the White House, which was lowered to half-staff after McCain’s death Saturday evening, was raised again a day later, in what was widely viewed, and protested by veterans’ groups, as a sign of disrespect.
In a statement Monday, Trump backed down, without addressing the controversy. “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 statement.
Flags elsewhere in the capital had remained at half-staff Monday, and it was widely believed that Trump was demonstrating his continued resentment toward McCain, who provided the pivotal vote preventing Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Since that momentous political defeat, Trump had, in speeches at rallies across the country, frequently mocked the thumbs-down gesture McCain used to torpedo the legislation.
“Unfortunately, one senator decided to put the thumb down late in the morning,” Trump said at one such rally in June, “and that was not a good thing when he put that thumb down.”
The attacks continued even as McCain’s battle with cancer intensified, leading the senator’s family to cry foul.
“What more must my family be put through right now?” McCain’s daughter Meghan tweeted last Sept. 27. “This is abhorrent.”
Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that Trump stopped his staff from issuing a formal statement praising McCain as an American hero. Instead, he posted a tweet, extending sympathy toward McCain’s family but saying nothing about his former rival’s career and legacy.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain,” Trump wrote Saturday on Twitter. “Our hearts and prayers are with you!”
During the Vietnam War, McCain served as a Navy pilot. After his plane was shot down, he was captured by the North Vietnamese and tortured during five years of captivity. Trump, as a presidential candidate, drew the ire of many in his own party for questioning McCain’s heroism.
“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” Trump said at a campaign event in Iowa in 2015.
Earlier Monday, a statement written by McCain before his death read like a not-so-veiled criticism of the president.
“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,” McCain 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.”
In his own statement, Trump, who was not invited to attend McCain’s funeral, said he had asked Vice President Mike Pence “to offer an address at the ceremony honoring” McCain at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. White House chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton would represent the administration at the funeral, Trump said in his statement.
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