On Monday morning, federal employees received word that they were to immediately lower flags at federal properties around the country to half-staff to honor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died on Saturday.
The order wasn’t surprising. The government lowers flags all the time when notable figures pass away.
But it began a day of drama, not only for the White House but across the federal government where employees were caught up in President Donald Trump’s stubbornness to pay tribute to a man who had sharply criticized him.
Federal employees at three government agencies told HuffPost they received at least three emails Monday about what to do with the flag. In the morning, they were told to lower the flag to half-staff. Midday, they were told to cancel that order and raise it again. And then around 5:00 p.m., they were again told to lower it.
All of them said they’d never seen anything like it. Usually, flag-lowering is pretty standard ― you get a notification with a start and end date.
“In small towns when you lower the flag people want to know why and use it as a signal to lower their own. It put us all in a bad position to explain why we would be putting our flags back up,” said one employee at a post office who had to deal with the confusion.
At a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility, the manager who sent out the emails about the flags had to then follow up with clarification because she was getting backlash from employees. She clarified that she had nothing to do with the orders ― they came from Washington.
“Unfortunately, there was no explanation attached when the order was sent,” she wrote.
But in Washington, it was clear what was going on. As flags around the Washington Monument were at half-staff, the flag at the White House remained defiantly at the top of the flagpole. Trump refused to lower the flag to half-staff because he didn’t want to honor McCain, one of his most outspoken opponents in the Republican Party.
Only later in the day, around 5:00 p.m., did Trump finally issue a proclamation ordering flags down to half-staff. He did so after significant criticism, including from the nation’s largest veterans organizations. That’s when federal facilities were then told to go ahead and lower the flag once more.
Federal agencies said they received the guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, although that department does not actually decide what to do. They simply forward the guidance to federal facilities. Ultimately, the decision on flags is made by the White House.
Trump also eventually put out a formal statement honoring McCain, which he had previously refused to do. Trump still couldn’t resist taking a dig at the deceased senator, saying he respected him ”[d]espite our differences on policy and politics.”