The White House lowered the US flag to half-mast on Saturday, raised it back up, and then on Monday lowered it again after the death of senator John McCain in an unusual and confusing break with protocol on the passing of a national leader.
McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, long-term US senator from Arizona, and 2008 Republican Party presidential nominee, died of brain cancer on Saturday at the age of 81. This prompted many Americans to lower their flags to half-mast in a traditional gesture of respect.
However, US President Donald Trump, who had clashed with fellow Republican McCain over various issues and said during his campaign that the senator was “not a war hero,” wavered in his approach to what is normally treated as a gesture of courtesy and respect.
McCain, who was a frequent Trump critic, told his family he did not want the president to attend his funeral. Instead, he asked that former presidents Democratic Party Barack Obama and Republican George W Bush pay him tribute.
Trump’s White House lowered its flag on Saturday, then raised it back up following the minimum period under the law. Trump also delayed issuing the customary proclamation for flags to remain at half-mast for longer than the two-day minimum.
Finally, under pressure from veterans and members of Congress, Trump said in a statement later on Monday that he respected McCain’s service to the nation and had ordered flags to half-mast.
McCain’s disdain and disapproval of Trump was obvious in the last speech he wrote and asked to be read after his death.
A family spokesman issued a farewell statement from McCain in which he said of the United States that “we weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries... 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.”
After a day of ignoring questions about McCain, Trump broke his silence during a gathering of evangelical Christian leaders at the White House on Monday evening.
“Our hearts and prayers are going to the family of senator John McCain... And we very much appreciate everything senator McCain has done for our country,” he told the religious leaders.
American presidents normally follow Congress’s lead on the death of a prominent lawmaker and order flags lowered until sunset on the day of burial. Critics of the president saw his reticence as a final slight against McCain.
John Lawrence, a history professor at the University of California’s Washington Centre, said that “the disparity between the Congress and White House policy is obviously noticeable and somewhat shocking.”
Trump’s clash with Congress comes at a time when he needs its support, especially the Senate, in order to avoid an impeachment scenario that has been growing in strength in Washington.
This has come after Trump’s former election campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted last week on tax and bank fraud charges and Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges.
Cohen also said Trump directed him to pay off two porn stars who said they had affairs with Trump, payments that prosecutors say were in violation of campaign finance laws.
The resentment among several Senate members on how Trump reacted to McCain’s death also came at a time when the US president clashed sharply with his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, amid reports that he would fire him. This means that Trump would need to go to the Senate to approve a new appointment.
Sessions fired back at Trump late last week after the president gave a scathing assessment of his leadership at the justice department. Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, was one of the first Republican lawmakers to back Trump’s presidential election bid and has implemented his hardline immigration policies in the role of attorney-general.
But Trump has repeatedly criticised Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing a probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 elections and whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow. Trump denies any collusion and calls the investigation a “witch hunt.”
“I put in an attorney-general who never took control of the justice department,” Trump said in a Fox News interview on 23 August. “He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’... I said, ‘what kind of a man is this?’”
In a rare rebuttal, Sessions quickly moved to defend himself. “I took control of the department of justice the day I was sworn in,” he said in a statement. “While I am attorney-general, the actions of the department of justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, close to Trump and a defender of Sessions, said he believed Trump would appoint a new attorney-general but should wait until after the congressional elections in November, in which the Republicans are seeking to maintain control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Under pressure over the Cohen and Manafort cases, Trump has renewed his criticism of Sessions and reprised his complaints about the justice department and the FBI, accusing them of treating him and his supporters unfairly.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had discussed with his lawyers a possible pardon for Manafort but had been persuaded to wait until after the November elections.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed a slight drop in support among Republicans for Trump following the Manafort conviction and the Cohen plea.
The poll found that 78 per cent of Republicans approved of Trump, down from 81 per cent in a seven-day poll that ended on Monday.
Overall, 37 per cent of adults said they approved of Trump’s performance in office, down from 43 per cent in the earlier poll.
Trump’s approval numbers have been relatively stable since he took office in January 2017 when compared with his predecessors, and his popularity has not wavered much among Republicans.
Trump’s former lawyer, Cohen, testified on 21 August that “at the direction of” the president he had arranged six-figure hush payments ahead of the 2016 presidential elections to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both women have said they had affairs with Trump, which he has denied.
Cohen gave his testimony in a New York courtroom as part of a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and bank fraud.
Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday that the campaign finance violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty were “not a crime,” even though prosecutors and Cohen agreed that they were. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said the payments were personal in nature and unrelated to the campaign.
US legal experts have been debating whether a president can be charged with a crime while in office. A number of legal experts have said that a president cannot be indicted while in office, and that if a president commits a crime the appropriate recourse would be impeachment.
The US Constitution specifies that the president can be impeached for treason, bribery or other “high crimes and misdemeanours.” The US Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime, but in a 2000 memorandum the department of justice concluded that criminal proceedings could interfere with the president’s ability to carry out his job.
Other experts have said that a sitting president can be indicted, arguing that no person is above the law.
As the debate on impeachment heated up in Washington, Trump warned in his Fox News interview that “everybody would be very poor” and questioned how he could be impeached when he had improved economic conditions.
“If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor,” Trump said in response to a question on whether he believed the Democrats would try to impeach him if they won back control of Congress.
“You know, I guess it says something like high crimes and all – I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who has done a great job,” Trump said, referring to the Constitution.
Trump said during the interview that he would give himself an “A+” if asked to grade his performance in office so far, citing his successful appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and predicting that Brett Kavanaugh, his next pick, would be confirmed as well.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Growing debate on Trump’s impeachment