Donald Trump bowed to pressure Monday to honour the late John McCain, ordering that flags be lowered to half-staff across the country, as the late senator fired a parting shot at the president in a farewell message to the United States.
Trump’s about-face came after he found himself mired in controversy over his rather conspicuous failure to pay tribute to McCain, who died Saturday at 81 after a year-long battle with brain cancer.
When veterans’ groups launched appeals for a more fitting salute to McCain, a Navy veteran who was imprisoned for more than five years in Vietnam, the Republican leader — who had no love lost for the Arizona senator — blinked.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country,” Trump said in a statement as he ordered the flag atop the White House and elsewhere to fly at half-staff until McCain’s burial on Sunday.
He later told evangelical leaders that “we very much appreciate everything that senator McCain has done for our country.”
John McCain at the 2008 Republican convention, where he accepted the party presidential nomination. Photot: AFP
The White House flag was lowered after McCain’s death on Saturday — but it was once again at the top of the flagpole on Monday morning.
Trump’s initial silence about McCain underscored the isolation of the US leader and fueled criticism that he is incapable of bringing a divided nation together even as it mourns a man widely seen as an American hero and a political icon.
In Phoenix, where a week of tributes to McCain was soon to get under way, the two-time presidential candidate’s former campaign manager Rick Davis confirmed that Trump would not be attending the funeral.
US Senator McCain dead at 81 after battling brain cancer
However, Vice President Mike Pence is set to speak at a ceremony honoring McCain at the US Capitol on Friday.
White House chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton will represent the administration during services.
In Phoenix, Davis read a posthumous statement that made a final jab at Trump.
“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 said.
“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,” he said — an apparent reference to Trump’s plans for a border wall.
McCain, who served as a senator from Arizona for more than 30 years, clashed repeatedly with Trump even though they were both Republicans, and the president initially paid scant tribute to the senator after his death.
The Washington Post reported that White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, Chief of Staff Kelly and other senior staff had urged a statement be released referring to McCain as a “hero” — but Trump opted for a terse, impersonal tweet instead.