Flags at half-staff: What are the guidelines and precedents to follow?

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When does a flag have to be flown at half-staff? Here are the guidelines from a proclamation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Less than 48 hours after Sen. John McCain died from brain cancer, the White House flag was no longer flying at half-staff. Amid backlash, the flag was once again lowered by Monday afternoon.

The decision early Sunday morning to raise the flag broke from the precedent of lowering the flags for significant national officials from their death until burial as a show of respect, ABC News reports.

So when must a flag be lowered to half-staff? Though precedent is often followed, there are also guidelines outlined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a 1954 proclamation. Aside from the instances outlined by Eisenhower, the president can also choose to lower a flag whenever the nation is mourning, whether it is after a tragedy or after the death of another official not outlined in the proclamation.

As McCain was a U.S. senator, the proclamation instructs that flags be lowered on the day of his death and the day after. McCain passed away on Saturday, and the White House reportedly raised the flags back right around midnight overnight as Sunday ended, which would be the minimum amount of time as outlined by Eisenhower's proclamation.

If the flag at the White House is raised, the rest of the country is not required to follow the president's lead, according to the Official Guide to Government Information and Services. For instance, a school may choose to lower all of its flags to half-staff after the death of a student.

In the case of McCain, other government buildings such as the Capitol kept their flags at half-staff on Monday. Both parties in the Senate have formally requested that flags at government buildings be lowered to half-staff until interment on Friday to honor the legacy of the six-term senator and former presidential nominee.

McCain family spokesperson Rick Davis confirmed on Monday that President Donald Trump would not be in attendance for the senator's funeral service.

When asked about the White House decision to raise the flag, Davis said of the family, "If you look at the gravity of all the reactions from around the world, world leaders, our allies, it's been immense, and I think they choose to focus on that."


Here are all of the guidelines about how long to leave flags at half-staff, set out in Eisenhower's proclamation.

  • President or former president's death: 30 days

  • Vice president, the chief justice or a retired chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, or the speaker of the House of Representatives: 10 days

  • Associate justice of the Supreme Court, a member of the Cabinet, a former vice president, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the majority leader of the Senate, the minority leader of the Senate, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, or the minority leader of the House of Representatives: Death until interment

  • United States senator, representative, territorial delegate, or the resident commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico: On the day of death and the day after

  • The governor of a state, territory or possession: Day of death until interment


The Associated Press and ABC News contributed to this report.
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politicsjohn mccainamerican flagu.s. & worldgovernmentdonald trumpPresident Donald Trump