Fed up with television coverage of Sen. John McCain’s death and eager to continue promoting his agenda, President Donald Trump remained silent for most of Monday about the Vietnam War veteran being honored by the rest of Washington.
Late in the day, and after urging from senior aides, he relented, offering brief plaudits for the recently passed lawmaker in a statement after responding to questions earlier only with silence.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country,” Trump wrote in the four-paragraph statement, which dealt mainly in the logistical details he’d approved for the week-long remembrance ceremonies.
Later, while meeting with evangelical leaders in the State Dining Room, Trump said in prepared remarks, “Our hearts and prayers are going to the family of Senator John McCain. There’s going to be a lot of activity over the next number of days. And we very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.”
It was a more robust effort at commemorating the late lawmaker than Trump offered on Sunday and for most of Monday. During a string of appearances before reporters, the President maintained his silence, choosing to ignore questions about the late Arizona Republican.
Trump was urged by senior level staffers, including chief of staff John Kelly, to deliver a more robust statement on McCain starting early Monday morning, but he resisted and maintained that he would not alter his planned schedule because of McCain’s death. Trump told some advisers he believed the television coverage of McCain’s death was over the top, according to one person familiar with internal deliberations.
As the day proceeded, aides continued to press him to at least address the matter of the White House flags. After facing criticism for raising the flags to full staff after lowering them on Saturday, he relented on that issue, and released the statement detailing the logistical items he’d approved for McCain’s remembrance ceremonies.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders was heavily involved in the discussions and helped develop the statement Trump released.
Asked what had changed and why the proclamation was issued Monday, Sanders would only say it was the “President’s decision to do and the statement speaks for itself.”
Trump also wrote in the statement that he asked Vice President Mike Pence to deliver remarks at a ceremony celebrating McCain’s life in the US Capitol on Friday.
And he listed the officials – including Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton – he had tasked with representing the administration at funeral services.
Trump had come under harsh criticism for his apparent lack of compassion for the late senator. The national commander of the American Legion, a large veterans’ organization, wrote in a statement, “I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment.”
A spokesman for the American Legion said the organization heard from a White House staffer after Trump’s proclamation who thanked the veterans’ group for its pointed statement.
“We were happy to see the White House move in the right direction,” American Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler said. “It’s symbolic. But it’s important.”
A source close to the White House said other staffers had been privately hoping that Trump would change his mind about releasing a full, respectful statement honoring McCain along with the proclamation ordering flags to fly at half-staff.
A separate White House official said other aides were glad the flags were finally lowered with the proclamation issued Monday afternoon.
Republican operatives on Capitol Hill and others close to the White House were sharply critical of the mixed signals following McCain’s passing.
One top GOP congressional aide described the episode as an “unforced error,” while a source close to the White House said the West Wing’s handling of McCain’s death on Monday “defies logic.”
Questioned midmorning whether he believed McCain – a former Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam – was a hero, Trump remained stone-faced behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office after announcing a trade breakthrough with Mexico.
Later, walking along the Rose Garden toward the Oval Office with his Kenyan counterpart, he stared straight ahead when asked for any thoughts on the late lawmaker.
Once inside, he ignored questions again while White House press aides shouted over reporters who were inquiring about McCain.
Moments later in the Cabinet Room, a similar scene played out.
“Thank you very much,” Trump said after the questions continued coming.
Kelly, who was later announced as one of the administration’s representatives at McCain’s services, stood nearby. Pence, assigned to speak at a service in the Capitol Building on Friday, sat alongside Trump.
As he bid farewell to President Uhuru Kenyatta at the West Wing, the President again declined to answer when pitched a question on McCain.
It had amounted to a deafening silence for a President who openly feuded with McCain, even as the senator was dying from brain cancer. Trump sent a cursory tweet on Saturday – “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” – but did not offer any words about the man himself.
A more fulsome statement had been prepared for Trump earlier in the weekend, but it was never released. And the presidential proclamation that would require flags on federal buildings lowered to half-staff was sent almost two days after McCain’s death.
That left Trump the odd man out in a capital city overflowing with remembrances of the onetime Republican standard-bearer.
Even Trump’s own daughter, now acting as his White House senior adviser, was more effusive in her description of McCain.
“The nation is united in its grief and the world mourns the loss of a true hero and a great statesman,” she said during remarks in Washington.