It took two full days for President Donald Trump to issue a lukewarm statement about the death of Sen. John McCain.
But late Monday afternoon, after lowering, then raising, then lowering the flag above the White House to half-staff in observance of his death, the West Wing press shop blasted out a new statement attributed to the president, reading, “despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator 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 day of his interment.”
The statement added that “at the request of the McCain family, I have also authorized military transportation of Senator McCain’s remains from Arizona to Washington, D.C., military pallbearers and band support, and a horse and caisson transport during the service at the United States Naval Academy.”
The president’s handling of the situation further added to Trump’s lengthy track record for botched responses to solemn occasions involving recently deceased celebrities, grieving Gold Star family members, natural disaster victims, and even mass murder and traumatized communities.
Instead of issuing the statement over the weekend as his senior aides advised, President Trump opted to post a single tweet on Saturday evening, one that didn’t include praise for the deceased GOP lawmaker. White House spokespeople didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s inquiry on the topic and if Trump was personally involved in the full-staff decision.
The series of events appeared remarkably callous, even for this president, although it wasn’t all that surprising, given Trump’s well-recorded dislike of McCain, and vice versa, and the president’s seeming inability to be gracious—even in times of death and mourning—to those he feels have wronged or crossed him.
“The president will not be, as far as we know, attending the funeral. That’s just a fact,” Rick Davis, a longtime McCain family friend and adviser, told reporters on Monday.
Earlier this month, Trump was forced to deal with yet another high-profile death. The result then was also flawed.
Following the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin’s death, President Trump delivered his official remarks, which included saying that Franklin—one of the most accomplished singers and musical icons in American history—was “a person I knew well” had “worked for me on numerous occasions” when Trump was a businessman.
It was a bizarre, tone-deaf comment that appeared to many to make the moment about him, his celebrity connections, and his one-time sway in the world of entertainment.
(Nevermind that, as The Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Franklin frequently bashed Trump in private and had told people close to her that “no amount of money” in the world could convince her to sing at Trump’s inauguration.)
The president has also experienced difficulty dealing with family members of the fallen, and in at least one high-profile instance, made the widow of a U.S. soldier break out in tears.
Last year, Trump spoke over the phone to the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the deceased soldiers in an operation in Niger, and reportedly told her that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” According to those present at the time, the widow, Myeshia Johnson, became visibly upset by President Trump’s attempted comfort, and began breaking down in tears.
The account was relayed by a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who had been in the car at the time of the phone conversation, and later confirmed by the soldier’s mother. Trump, for his part, claimed the entire episode was a fabrication, and promptly started feuding with the congresswoman instead.
Around the same time, the father of Army Cpl. Dillon Baldridge, who was killed by an Afghan police officer, had told the Washington Post that Trump had offered to give him $25,000 for the family’s loss.
The check wasn’t sent, not until after the Post story was published and Trump was called out on it.
These aren’t even Trump’s only disastrous run-ins with Gold Star families. There was, of course, the famous saga with the Khan family during the presidential campaign, and shortly after the Trump era got underway, he managed to infuriate the father of a Navy SEAL killed in a Yemen raid.
Trump’s chronic “fumbl[ing]” in times of tragedy and death—as one senior Trump aide put it—is in part rooted in simple stubbornness, according to those close to him. Another aspect, according to another Trump friend, is that he is so often “talk[s] in a specific way that is sometimes misinterpreted.”
Scottie Nell Hughes, a former top Trump media ally and fixture on cable news, told The Daily Beast on Monday that this is merely the way Trump handles grief.
“Everybody deals with grief and death differently, and I do wish that President Trump had done something more personal regarding Sen. McCain’s service,” Hughes added. “[But] I don’t think anybody expected him to act differently than how he’s acting now… Why don’t we just let the family grieve and stop making it political on both sides?”
When asked if she would chalk up any of Trump’s response to a sheer lack of empathy, Hughes simply replied, “It’s just who Trump is. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s up to every individual to decide.”
Of course, President Trump’s “fumbles” or shortcomings in this regard do not end with McCain, Aretha Franklin, or Gold Star families.
Earlier this year, when the president attempted to comfort the families of victims of the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, he encountered Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter Kimberly Vaughan was murdered at the school. Hart recounted to The Associated Press that Trump several times used the term “wacky” to describe the mass shooter and the clothing he wore.
The grieving mother said she told President Trump in their private conversation that “maybe if everyone had access to mental health care, we wouldn’t be in the situation.”
According to the AP, Hart (herself an Army vet) said she suggested hiring military veterans as school “sentinels,” to which Trump quickly responded, “And arm them?”
She replied, “no,” but the president “kept mentioning” arming teachers with guns, an idea that has been widely rejected and criticized by educators and veterans alike.
“It was like talking to a toddler,” Hart continued.
In the aftermath of the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi atrocity in Charlottesville last year, the president was also incapable of finding the right words. His response blaming “many sides” for the death that day, as well as his insistence that there were in fact good people as well on the Nazi side, enraged countless people—including the mother of the slain.
When asked by The Daily Beast last year if she holds President Trump responsible for her daughter Heather Heyer’s death, Susan Bro said, “I’m starting to come to that conclusion because he definitely pushes forward a hateful agenda.”
And when it came time for Trump to rise to the occasion as Puerto Rico suffered devastation and mourned its many dead in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the president similarly whiffed.
As criticism of his administration’s response to the disaster mounted (a relief effort that quite possibly cost the lives of numerous Puerto Ricans), Trump got into a war of words with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and repeated hate-tweeted and shamed the U.S. territory. He also treated handing out paper towel rolls at a photo-op to afflicted locals like deploying a T-shirt cannon at a sporting event.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” the president posted to Twitter late last year.
He then turned his ire to the “others in Puerto Rico,” which, again, had just suffered a horrific hurricane.
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump wrote. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
That same weekend, when the president wasn’t rage-tweeting, he also went golfing, as millions of American citizens went without electricity and tried to survive with dwindling supplies of clean water and food.
—With additional reporting by Lachlan Markay