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‘Disgraceful’: Trump once criticized Obama for not swiftly lowering the American flag. Now it’s his turn.

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By Michael Miller, The Washington Post 

July. A mass shooting. A community in mourning. And a controversy over a five-day delay in lowering the country’s flags.

Three years ago, it was President Barack Obama who was criticized for hesitating in his decision to fly the nation’s flags at half-staff following the slaying of five service members at a recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

[post_ads]Among his fiercest critics was Donald Trump, then a reality television star, although one surging to the head of the Republican presidential field.

“This disgraceful omission is unacceptable and yet another example of our incompetent politicians,” Trump said at the time, ordering flags at all of his properties to be flown at half-staff. “It is a simple yet meaningful and important gesture that signifies our respect and recognition for these great soldiers who lost their lives.”

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On Monday, it was Trump’s turn to face criticism after the Annapolis mayor said the president initially refused to lower the nation’s flags in remembrance of the five Capital Gazette employees slain last week.

“Is there a cutoff for tragedy?” Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley (D) told the Gazette, saying his request for the White House to order flags at half-staff had been denied. “This was an attack on the press. It was an attack on freedom of speech. It’s just as important as any other tragedy.”

“Shame, shame, shame Mr President,” tweeted former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile.

Like Obama after Chattanooga, however, Trump gave the order to lower the nation’s flags five days after the shooting.

The president issued a proclamation Tuesday ordering flags to be flown at half-staff on federal buildings to honor the Gazette victims, The Washington Post’s John Wagner reported. A White House spokeswoman told Wagner the decision was made Monday night “as soon as the president heard about the request from the mayor.”

“Our Nation shares the sorrow of those affected by the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland,” Trump said in the proclamation, which ordered flags to remain at half-staff until sundown on Tuesday. “Americans across the country are united in calling upon God to be with the victims and to bring aid and comfort to their families and friends.”

Like the Chattanooga controversy in 2015 — when Trump was joined in his criticism by Glenn Beck, Curt Schilling and a Navy SEAL, among others, and when a false rumor circulated that Obama had ordered flags lowered for fallen singer Whitney Houston about three years earlier — the political debate has drawn attention to a peculiar historical practice.

Formal procedures for lowering the nation’s flags to half-staff were first spelled out in a proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. The length of time the flag is lowered for the death of a public official depends on the prominence of their office, Eisenhower ruled, from 30 days for former or current presidents down to a single full day for a member of Congress.

The president can also proclaim periods of national mourning for other people and events, including mass shootings, opening up the decision to public scrutiny.

In April, Trump ordered flags lowered for five days in honor of former first lady Barbara Bush.
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He also asked flags fly at half-staff for four days after previous mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Tex., Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Tex.

Recent presidents have lowered the flags to half-staff for Pope John Paul II, Rosa Parks, Neil Armstrong, the victims of the Virginia Tech and Newtown, Conn., shootings, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Boston Marathon bombings. Flags were lowered for foreigners Winston Churchill, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and Nelson Mandela, among others.

Among the earliest examples of lowering the flag in the United States was in 1799, when the Navy Department ordered all Navy vessels to “wear their colours half mast high” on the occasion of the death of George Washington.

But why half-staff? Look to history.

“According to one line of scholarly thinking, by lowering the Union Jack, the sailors were making room for the invisible flag of Death,” reported Mental Floss’s Ethan Trex. “This explanation jibes with the British tradition of flying a ‘half-staff’ flag exactly one flag’s width lower than its normal position to underscore that Death’s flag is flapping above it.”

The practice dates back to at least 1612 and an ill-fated mission.

At the beginning of the 17th century, King Christian IV of Denmark sent three successive missions to Greenland to locate long-lost Norse settlements and to claim the massive island for his country. During the first expedition in 1605, Scottish explorer John Cunningham (sailing for Denmark) captured four Inuits and took them prisoner.

The Inuits did not forget.

And so it was that seven years later, when Englishman James Hall led another, privately funded expedition to the same area in Greenland to look for silver, the Inuits sought their revenge.

“While Hall was in the boat, he was struck by a spear and killed,” according to “Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia.”

First-person accounts of the incident include some of the first known references to lowering a flag to half-staff or, in this case, half-mast. Quartermaster John Gatonbe, who had remained behind on the main ship, Heart’s Ease, saw Hall’s smaller, expeditionary boat — called a pinnace — coming and knew something had gone wrong.

“This day, at night, came our vice-admiral, with our great pinnace at her stern, her flag hanging down, and her ancient [colors] hanging down over her poop, which was a sign of death,” Gatonbe wrote in an account republished in “Danish Arctic Expeditions, 1605 to 1620.”
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“We, being most of us asleep but the watch, were soon awake, for our pinnace came aboard of us and told us of the death of our master and general, James Hall, and how with a dart he was slain of one of the savages, and died the 23d of July,” Gatonbe continued.

Like now, there was back then a political power struggle, with a fight breaking out over who should take command of the ship. The bickering eventually gave way to agreement, and the Heart’s Ease, under the command of a young captain named William Huntriss, lowered its own Union Jack to half-mast and headed home.

“The Heart’s Ease entered the Thames on the 19th of September, and Huntriss caused the flags to be hoisted half mast, in token of the death of his beloved commander, James Hall,” Clements R. Markham wrote in the notes to “The Voyages of William Baffin: 1612 – 1622.”

The lowered flag was considered a symbol of shared loss, not division.

“We sail’d up the river of Thames, the wind being easterly,” Gatonbe wrote. “And so, before London, in St. Katharine’s pool, we anchor’d, having our flag and ancient [colors] hanging down, in token and sign of the death of Mr. Hall, our general.”

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: ‘Disgraceful’: Trump once criticized Obama for not swiftly lowering the American flag. Now it’s his turn.
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