On Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that he order flags lowered to half-staff when the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States reaches 100,000.
“Respectful of them and the loss to our country, we are writing to request that you order flags to be flown at half staff on all public buildings in our country on the sad day of reckoning when we reach 100,000 deaths,” wrote the two Democratic leaders. “It would serve as a national expression of grief so needed by everyone in our country.”
To date, more than 93,000 people have died from Covid-19, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins.
The plea by Pelosi and Schumer comes weeks after former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, made the same suggestion.
“We’ve lost more people to this virus in the last several months than we lost in the entire Vietnam War,” Biden said in an April virtual fundraiser.
It took Trump until Thursday evening to announce that he would, in fact, order flags to half-staff to honor coronavirus victims.
“I will be lowering the flags on all Federal Buildings and National Monuments to half-staff over the next three days in memory of the Americans we have lost to the CoronaVirus,” the President tweeted on his way back from a trip to Michigan.
He added that flags will be at half-staff on Monday to honor service members who have lost their lives fighting for the nation, as is tradition.
It would seem, judging by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ guidelines for when the flag can and should be lowered to half-staff, that the current pandemic very much qualifies. Here’s the VA’s guidance:
“An easy way to remember when to fly the United States flag at half-staff is to consider when the whole nation is in mourning. These periods of mourning are proclaimed either by the president of the United States, for national remembrance, or the governor of a state or territory, for local remembrance, in the event of a death of a member or former member of the federal, state or territorial government or judiciary. The heads of departments and agencies of the federal government may also order that the flag be flown at half staff on buildings, grounds and naval vessels under their jurisdiction.”
A number of governors have taken this action on their own. On Tuesday, Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered flags to fly at half-staff in the state to remember the lives lost from Covid-19 – and said that the flags would fly half-staff on the 19th of every month for the rest of the year as a remembrance. Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in early April that flags would fly at half-staff for the foreseeable future in honor of coronavirus victims. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did the same thing at around the same time.
Trump has shown a willingness to call for flags to be flown at half-staff to honor the dead.
In the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in August 2019, Trump ordered flags to half-staff to honor the victims. He did the same to honor the people killed in the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland – albeit after some prodding.
That same year Trump stoked considerable controversy when he initially refused to order flags at the White House to fly at half-staff in honor of the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Trump and McCain had repeatedly clashed in the years before the senator’s death. But his service to the country – McCain spent five years in a North Vietnam prison during the Vietnam war and served in the House and Senate for decades – led to widespread calls for flags to be lowered in his honor. Trump eventually acquiesced.
More recently, Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff to honor Peace Officers Memorial Day and Police Week. “I call upon all Americans to observe Peace Officers Memorial Day and Police Week with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” Trump said in a White House proclamation on May 8. “I also call on the Governors of the States and Territories and officials of other areas subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, to direct that the flag be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day.”
Trump isn’t unfamiliar with criticism over when to order flag to be lowered. Back in 2015, private citizen Donald Trump criticized then-President Barack Obama for his delay in ordering the move in the wake of a mass shooting in Tennessee that left four Marines dead. “I’m glad President Obama followed my lead and lowered the flags half-staff, Trump tweeted. “It’s about time!” (He had ordered the flags lowered at Trump Tower.)
According to tradition, Trump ordered flags lowered this coming Monday, which is Memorial Day. “On Memorial Day the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of the nation’s battle heroes,” reads the VA’s guidelines.