Vice President Mike Pence praised Sen. John McCain on Thursday to a veterans service organization that had joined others in criticizing President Donald Trump's response after the death of the Navy combat veteran and two-time Republican presidential candidate.
"I can assure you, America will always remember and honor the lifetime of service of United States Senator John McCain," Pence said in an address to the 100th National Convention of the two-million-member American Legion in Minneapolis.
"By honoring him, we also honor all of you," he said to prolonged applause.
McCain, who died Saturday after a long battle against brain cancer, "came from a long line of service in uniform," Pence said in a reference to McCain's father and grandfather, both four-star admirals.
"He served in the Vietnam War. He spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, and he did not yield," he said. As a senator, McCain became "one of the most unwavering advocates of our Armed Forces to ever serve."
Pence's fulsome praise contrasted with Trump's hesitancy in issuing a proclamation allowing flags to be flown at half-staff atop the White House and at all federal buildings and military facilities until McCain's interment Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery.
The White House did not put out the traditional statement honoring the passing of a member of Congress. Instead, Trump sent out a Tweet offering condolences to the McCain family. The White House rooftop flag was at half-staff, but only for 24 hours under the usual protocol for members of Congress.
By Monday morning, it was back to full staff, prompting widespread criticism from the Legion, AMVETS and others, including members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. The flag atop the U.S. Capitol remained at half-staff.
A presidential proclamation was needed to keep flags at half-staff, but Trump ignored shouted questions on the issue through most of Monday.
In a statement, Legion National Commander Denise Rohan said: "On behalf of The American Legion's two million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain's death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation's flag be half-staffed through his interment."
Joe Chenelly, AMVETS national executive director, said, "The White House is openly showcasing its blatant disrespect for Senator McCain's many decades of service and sacrifice to our country as well as the service of all his fellow veterans."
By late afternoon Monday, the flag atop the White House was returned to half-staff, and Trump later issued the proclamation and a statement. "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," he said.
On CBS' "This Morning" program Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a close friend of McCain's, said he found Trump's initial response to McCain's death "disturbing."
"It bothers me greatly when the president says things about John McCain. The way he's handled the passing of John was disturbing. He finally got it right," Graham said.
In his address to the Legion, Pence cited a list of the Trump administration's achievements, including reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs and expanding options for private health care. "We're now giving veterans real access to the real-time health care choices they deserve," he said, although funding for the bill meant to improve access -- the VA Mission Act -- has yet to be appropriated by Congress.
Pence noted that Trump addressed the Legion's convention last year and used the occasion to sign a bill to improve and speed up the veterans' disability benefits appeals process. "In case you haven't noticed, you have an ally and a champion in President Donald Trump," Pence said. "In this White House, veterans benefits are not entitlements" but rather "the earned compensation for men and women who served in the uniform of the United States."
He also noted Trump's action in boosting funding for the armed forces to "make the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still. The era of budget cuts to our armed forces is over."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.