WASHINGTON – The White House wanted the US Navy to move “out of sight” a warship named for the late Sen. John McCain – a war hero who became a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s ire – and his father and grandfather ahead of the president’s visit to Japan last week, according to an email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
In a May 15 email to US Navy and Air Force officials, a US Indo-Pacific Command official outlined plans for the president’s arrival that he said had resulted from conversations between the White House Military Office and the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy. In addition to instructions for the proper landing areas for helicopters and preparation for the USS Wasp – where the president was scheduled to speak –, the official issued a third directive: “USS John McCain needs to be out of sight.”
“Please confirm #3 will be satisfied,” the official wrote.
When a Navy commander expressed surprise about the directive for the USS John S. McCain, the US Indo-Pacific Command official replied: “First I heard of it as well.” He said he would work with the White House Military Office to obtain more information about the order.
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was aware of the concern about the presence of the USS John McCain in Japan and approved measures to ensure it didn’t interfere with the president’s visit, a US official said.
There were discussions within the US military over the past week about how to handle the warship, another US official said. The ship is being repaired after a 2017 collision, and any ship undergoing such repair or maintenance would be difficult to move, officials said. A tarp was hung over the ship’s name ahead of the president’s trip, according to photos reviewed by the Journal, and sailors were directed to remove any coverings from the ship that bore its name.
After the tarp was taken down, a barge was moved closer to the ship, obscuring its name. Navy officials acknowledge the barge was moved but said it was not moved to obscure the name of the ship. Sailors on the ship, who typically wear caps bearing its name, were given the day off during Trump’s visit, people familiar with the matter said.
Trump arrived in Japan on Saturday and on Tuesday – though still Monday in the US – delivered Memorial Day remarks to troops aboard the USS Wasp, which is stationed along with the USS John McCain at Yokosuka Naval Base, south of Tokyo. Speaking to around 800 military men and women – some of whom wore “Make Aircrew Great Again” patches with a likeness of the president on their jumpsuits – Trump said he was joined by sailors from six other ships. He made no mention of the USS John McCain.
Before visiting the USS Wasp, Trump visited the helicopter carrier JS Kaga, from which the USS John McCain would have been visible.
After the publication of this article, Trump tweeted: “I was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan. Nevertheless, @FLOTUS and I loved being with our great Military Men and Women – what a spectacular job they do!”
The White House declined to answer questions about the reason for the directive or where it originated. The White House Military Office provides support for presidential travel, among other matters.
Meghan McCain, McCain’s daughter, criticized the president late Wednesday as a “child who will always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dad’s incredible life.”
“Nine months since he passed, Trump won’t let him RIP. So I have to stand up for him,” she wrote on Twitter. “It makes my grief unbearable.”
Trump has repeatedly attacked McCain, both before and since the Arizonan died in August from a brain tumor at 81 years old. In the first years of the Trump administration, McCain was one of the few Republican senators willing to publicly challenge the president, including casting a critical vote in 2017 that blocked the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That vote – which McCain signaled with a thumbs-down gesture – was a source of immense aggravation for the president, who has often mimicked the hand motion and who called the vote “disgraceful” in April.
In March, Trump complained that he hadn’t been thanked for giving McCain “the kind of funeral that he wanted.” Speaking to workers at an Ohio factory, he said, “I didn’t get a thank you. That’s OK.”
He also belittled McCain’s academic performance in college and criticized the late senator for turning over a dossier of unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump disparaged McCain’s military service in Vietnam, saying he was “not a war hero” and that “I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain was a prisoner of war for 5½ years in North Vietnam, where he endured beatings and solitary confinement, while refusing to accept North Vietnamese offers of early release on the grounds that it would undermine the morale of others who lacked McCain’s connections. McCain was the son and grandson of admirals, and his father had been promoted to the position of commander of all US forces in the Pacific theater.
In July 2018, a month before McCain’s death, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer formally added McCain as a namesake of the USS John McCain, which had been named for his father and grandfather after it launched in 1994. McCain said at the time that he was “deeply honored.”
The USS John McCain collided with a merchant vessel in August 2017, killing 10 sailors and tearing a hole in the left rear side of the destroyer. Trump, asked about the collision at the time, told reporters: “That’s too bad.” He later tweeted that his thoughts and prayers were with the sailors aboard the ship.