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After Delay, Trump Orders Flags At Half-Staff For Annapolis Attack

Jul 3, 2018
Originally published on July 3, 2018 10:28 am

Updated at 10:45 a.m. ET

President Trump has ordered U.S. flags to be lowered to half-staff as "a mark of solemn respect" for the four journalists and a newspaper sales representative killed last week at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md. The proclamation came after Annapolis' mayor said his request to lower flags had been denied.

"Our Nation shares the sorrow of those affected by the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland," says the statement signed by Trump and released by the White House on Tuesday morning. "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."

Less than 24 hours earlier, the city of Annapolis had confirmed to NPR that the president had declined its request.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed, you know? ... Is there a cutoff for tragedy?" Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said Monday afternoon, according to The Baltimore Sun. "This was an attack on the press. It was an attack on freedom of speech. It's just as important as any other tragedy."

Shortly after the order was released Tuesday, Buckley told the Sun that the reversal was "the least respect we could give the journalists. It's a little bit of comfort."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered a different timeline to reporters Tuesday morning. President Trump "asked that we reach out and verify that the mayor had made the request," she said. "And when we did, the president asked that the flags be lowered immediately."

In a statement to NPR's Scott Horsley, Sanders clarified that she had spoken with Buckley "last night and again this morning to let him know the President's decision."

"I'm not sure on the process," she added to reporters Tuesday. "But there's certain protocol that is followed. It was."

According to the U.S. Flag Code, the national flag may be ordered lowered only by the president or the governor of a state — though the governor may only do so if the deaths being commemorated directly affected that state. In the case of the Annapolis shooting, Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan already ordered the state flag flown at half-staff on Friday through sunset on Monday.

But Buckley, a Democrat, told the Sun that the scope of the tragedy at the city's newspaper merited more than that.

"It's not as noticeable when a state flag is down but you still have your main flags at full mast," he said.

Trump's order Tuesday applies to flags on public grounds throughout the U.S. and at diplomatic facilities abroad.

The president said Friday, one day after the attack that left five people dead, that the killings at the newspaper "shocked the conscience of our nation and filled our hearts with grief."

"Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job," he added.

However, since well before taking office, Trump has been openly antagonistic toward the press, calling it the "enemy of the American people," tweeting an image of him throttling a stand-in for a major media network — and, just three weeks ago, saying, "Our Country's biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!"

Sanders, for her part, said Tuesday that "we have a great deal of respect for the press."

"While we do have a great deal of respect," she added, "we also know they have a great responsibility to put out accurate information."

After recent mass shootings at high schools in Texas and Florida, Trump ordered U.S. flags across the country lowered to half-staff to honor the victims. He did the same after mass killing in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

But while some have accused Trump of fostering a climate of disrespect and even violence toward the Fourth Estate, others note that his is a dilemma faced by all presidents.

The mass shooting in Las Vegas killed 58 people. At a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 26 were killed. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 17 died, and at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, 10 were killed.

By comparison, the shooting at the Annapolis newsroom killed five.

USA Today writes, "like his predecessors, Trump also faces a grim calculus: What differentiates a devastating crime from a truly national tragedy? Is it a matter of body count, or do some attacks carry with them a symbolic significance that transcends the police report?"

Even so, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston professor who studies presidential proclamations, tells USA Today that the Maryland shooting transcends the number killed because "the crucial role of the free press in America puts their status on par with any other government official."

Some have also pointed out that President Barack Obama also faced criticism in 2015 for failing to quickly issue a proclamation that the flag be flown at half-staff for five U.S. service members who were killed by a gunman at a naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Obama did eventually make such an order, five days after the killings.

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