Updated 4:51 p.m. | Four times on Monday Donald Trump was asked about the late Sen. John McCain. And four times the president remained silent.
Trump is as known for speaking his mind as much as he is for his real estate ventures or his reality television show. But when pressed by reporters repeatedly to say something — anything — about the Arizona Republican and his legacy, Trump simply ignored reporters’ questions.
It was not until nearly 5 p.m. that Trump, via a written statement tweeted by his top spokeswoman, stated his “respect” for the late lawmaker. But the statement led by reminding the world about their many differences.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Sen. 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 end of the day of his interment,” Trump said in the statement.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) August 27, 2018
The first time the day’s media pool — the rotating group of reporters that monitor a president’s movements and some events — tried to get the president’s thoughts about McCain’s death came during a late-morning Oval Office announcement of a preliminary trade pact with Mexico.
Trump chose to ignore the questions.
As White House press office staff told reporters it was time to leave, several senior administration officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — formed something of a wall between the pool journalists and Trump, who was still behind his desk. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders moved in between that human shield and the media members, forming another line of defense.
The final time came about four hours later, as Trump sat alongside visiting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in the Oval Office. That time, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl asked the president if he considers McCain, who was tortured during his captivity during the Vietnam War, a hero.
Trump chose to ignore the question.
The day’s print pool reporter, McClatchy’s Franco Ordonez, sent this about the photo opportunity: “There were repeated questions about McCain that POTUS didn’t address.”
The president often answers reporters’ questions when a day’s pool is allowed into meetings or photo ops, often making quite a bit of news when doing so. That means he made repeated decisions Monday to withhold any praise — or criticism — of McCain.
Trump waited nearly 48 hours to praise McCain’s military service or decades in Congress with public remarks, a statement or a tweet since the senator died Saturday after a year-long fight with brain cancer. The U.S. flag over the White House was lowered to half-staff Saturday evening and Sunday. But just after midnight, it was returned to full-staff; White House aides have yet to provide an answer why. Around 3:45 p.m., the flag was again taken down to half-staff.
The U.S. Code states says flags should be lowered “on the day of death and the following day” for a deceased member of Congress. But a president can issue a proclamation ordering that flags be lowered and for how long, as Trump has done a number of times following deaths of public figures or tragedies like mass shootings.
He finally did so for McCain around 4 p.m. Monday, signing a proclamation that described the move as “a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding service of Senator John Sidney McCain III.”
But before the White House gave into widespread criticism, including from Republicans, American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan wants to know why it was raised early Monday in the first place.
“On the behalf of the American Legion’s 2 million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Sen. McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment,” she said in a statement directed at the president.
Rick Davis, McCain’s former campaign manager and a longtime adviser, said at a Monday press conference in Arizona that, per McCain’s wishes, Trump won’t be among those attending a funeral service in Washington on Saturday. “The president will not be, as far as we know, attending the funeral. That’s just a fact,” Davis said.
At two other events the press pool was allowed to witness — the arrival of Kenyatta and his wife and a brief stop by the two presidents in the Rose Garden — reporters tried to get a comment from Trump about McCain.
Like the other times, Trump chose to ignore the questions.
The White House never scheduled a daily press briefing with Sanders, meaning a second full day will pass without an official statement attributed to Trump or the White House saluting McCain’s years of service. Sanders’ daily briefings have become less and less frequent — especially during weeks controversy is swirling around her boss.
Other U.S. presidents have dealt with the deaths of political foes. They chose to highlight those individuals’ service or accomplishments. Not the 45th chief executive.