September 01, 2018

John McCain’s death brought out the question: should the US flag actually fly at half-mast?

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The reaction of the president to the senator's death sparked outrage as many felt returning the flag to full-mast just two days after his passing was disrespectful. 

Senator John McCain passed away on August 25 after a lengthy battle against brain cancer. In the wake of his death, the country went into mourning, and all the flags in the country were lowered to half-mast when the news broke. 

But on Monday, two days later, President Donald Trump raised the White House's flag to full-staff again. Many citizens were furious over the decision, citing Trump's well-known dislike for the senator as his reasoning for being disrespectful while all other flags remained lowered. 

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On Tuesday, bowing to the pressure, he signed an order that all flags should remain at half-staff until the day of the funeral, and lowered the one on the White House again. 

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But according to the United States code, the legal requirement regarding the flag in honoring the death of a senator is only that it needs to be at half-staff on the day of the death and the day following. By this logic, Trump followed the law when he re-raised the flag. 

The death of a president warrants the flag being lowered for 30 days, and a vice-president gets 10 days. 

While these are the basic rules, a president is at liberty to afford someone a longer display of respect in the case of prominent figures. 

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As per Cornell Law School, it is at the discretion of the president to also lower the flag for the deaths of other non-official persons in the country for a reasonable period of time. 

With the level of respect for McCain, who served not only as a senator, but as a soldier in the Vietnam War, where he was a prisoner of war for five years, most institutions decided to keep the flag lowered to half-mast on Monday. 

The Atlantic referred to Trump's decision to raise the flag fully as "combining most of the worst aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency: pettiness as a major motivating force for administration policy, a preference for sowing division over unity, disdain for tradition and norms, chaotic decision making, and an ultimate tendency to surrender." 

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The president has in the past denied requests to lower the White House's flag, most notably after a gunman killed five journalists working at a newspaper in his city. The backlash from that decision resulted in him lowering the flag the following day. 

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