Flags across the country were lowered this weekend to mark the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain on Saturday from brain cancer. Early Monday morning, however, flags at the White House had been returned to their usual position, prompting figurative gasps from Washington journalists and Trump critics.
Dramatic photos contrasted the apparently defiant flagpole atop the White House with half-staff flags surrounding the Washington Monument behind it:
By midmorning on Monday, the flags surrounding the Washington Monument had been raised back to full staff. Meanwhile, the White House lowered its own flag again by midafternoon, apparently bowing, almost literally, to public pressure. But never mind! The takeaway for many was that the White House’s raised flag was akin to a raised middle finger, and a dramatic break from custom and code.
In fact, however, the White House’s decision to raise the flag on Monday morning was in exact accordance to the country’s official guidelines for flying the flag at half-staff. The nonbinding U.S. Flag Code, adopted in 1942, dictates that when a member of Congress dies, the flag should be lowered “on the day of death and the following day.” A similar proclamation about flag display made by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 and amended in 1969 to include members of Congress recommends the same duration. McCain died on Saturday, and the White House flag was lowered through the end of Sunday.
The White House flag itself was not the problem, according to John Hartvigsen, president of the North American Vexillological Association from 2014 to 2017. The violation of custom was the president’s failure to issue a statement ordering the rest of the country’s flags lowered, as he did when Barbara Bush and Billy Graham died, to take a few recent examples. “If he had done that, there would not be all of this confusion,” Hartvigsen said, noting that Trump could have skipped a flowery statement of mourning and issued only a simple flag order. “He created a problem for himself that he didn’t have to create.”
Only presidents, governors, and the mayor of Washington have the formal right to order flags to half-staff, but in practice, flag flyers have wide latitude. House Speaker Paul Ryan controls the flags at the U.S. Capitol, for example, and he told HuffPost on Monday that flags there will be lowered through the day of McCain’s burial next weekend. Some governors, including John Kasich in Ohio, have followed suit. The mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, ordered flags at City Hall be flown at half-staff through Monday evening, according to a spokeswoman.
It’s also true that flags are often lowered for longer periods when a person of greater national significance dies. When Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy died in 2009, for example, President Barack Obama lowered White House flags to half-staff for five days. Then again, President Obama was an unusually enthusiastic flag lowerer, ordering American flags to half-staff more than any president in the country’s history, and far more often than his immediate predecessors. The American Legion released a statement on Monday imploring the president to half-staff the flag until McCain’s burial. Hartvigsen’s perspective is that if anything, the country perhaps lowers the flag too often these days, with death-through-burial gradually becoming the new standard for almost anyone of note.
It’s possible that Trump intended to send a direct message with the White House flag, of course. But it’s also possible that he pays little attention to its status. Just this weekend, after all, the president was photographed apparently coloring the American flag incorrectly at an event with schoolchildren in Ohio. The point is that there is no need to resort to contortionist vexillology to understand that Trump despised John McCain and that he has no intention of faking respect upon his death. He reportedly rejected a statement his staff prepared on McCain’s heroism and ignored a question from a reporter Monday about McCain’s legacy. It would be interesting to learn that Trump declined to keep the flag lowered beyond the bare minimum number of hours, but it would give us no new information about his personal pettiness or his feelings about McCain.
To be fair, however, we do have one piece of evidence that Trump views flag lowering as an important symbol. In 2015, some conservatives were outraged that Obama had not immediately ordered flags to half-staff after a gunman killed five service members in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He eventually did make the order, but in the meantime then-candidate Trump issued a press release scolding the president and ordering flags on his own properties lowered. At the time, the move was widely perceived to be an attempt to shore up support with veterans: Trump had recently offended them by insulting John McCain.