Mass Confusion At Interior Department Over How To Respond To McCain’s Passing

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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Unearthed messages reveal rampant confusion and miscommunication among Interior Department employees over whether to fly flags at half-staff in honor of the late John McCain.

Employees with the National Park Service (NPS) — an agency within the Department of Interior — struggled with its response to the passing of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain on Aug. 25, according to emails obtained by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request. The confusion began on Aug. 27, two days after McCain’s death, when reporters began to question why flags at the Washington Monument were at half-staff while White House flags returned to full-staff.

“Good afternoon all, Please cancel the half staffing notification that was sent out this morning,” Dante Jeffries, program manager at Interior, emailed to staff on Aug. 27. The message notified NPS staff to put flags back to full-staff.

The email apparently caught staffers by surprise, with James Gasser, the NPS chief of protocol and logistics, writing “OMG, I have never seen this!”

However, Jeffries corrected himself just minutes later, writing to staff, “I am sorry for the confusion, please keep the flag at half-staff.”

The confusion seemingly emanated from the White House, with Chelsea Sullivan, an employee in the NPS’s communications office, writing, “I talked to Jenny and she said they normally get notified by the WH and the WH is saying full staff. So they are still looking in to it.”

The email exchanges shed more light on how confused federal employees became over how to manage their flags in late August. The White House garnered negative press coverage when it raised its flags back to full-staff two days after McCain’s death — while other federally owned flags remained at half-staff. After intense scrutiny, the White House reversed course and placed its flags back to half-staff. (RELATED: Trump Caves, Lowers Flags To Half-Staff)

U.S. code mandates that after the passing of a member of Congress, the flag must be flown at half-staff on the day of death and the day after. The White House followed this procedure after McCain died of glioblastoma. However, the White House originally did not issue an extension — something typically done out of respect for national figures. After mounting criticism, Trump issued a proclamation to keep the flags lowered.

“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,” Trump announced on August 27.

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