You can tell a lot about a person, and a presidential administration, by the way they handle small, symbolic things. The White House’s handling of the American flag in the aftermath of Senator John McCain’s death is providing a good test of the Trump team.
The episode has managed to combine 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.
As my colleague Russell Berman has written, McCain and Trump had a contentious relationship, and that spilled into the president’s reaction to the Arizona senator’s death. After McCain, a fellow Republican, died on Saturday, the president tweeted a terse condolence to his family, with nothing about the man himself. The Washington Post then reported that Trump had nixed an official White House statement about McCain.
On Monday, matters reached peak pettiness, as the White House raised its American flag to full-staff, while other flags around Washington remained at half-staff. This follows strict protocol—which mandates the flag be lowered the day of a senator’s death and the day after—but was widely viewed as a snub, since a president can, and often does, override rules in moments like this. During a brief White House appearance, Trump folded his arms, glowered, and remained silent as reporters asked him about McCain.