White House asked US Navy to hide McCain warship from Trump during Japan trip

The USS John S. McCain being pulled towards a pier after departing from a dry dock at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, on Nov 27, 2018.
The USS John S. McCain being pulled towards a pier after departing from a dry dock at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, on Nov 27, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The White House asked the Navy to hide a destroyer named after Senator John McCain in order to avoid having the ship appear in photographs taken while United States President Donald Trump was visiting Japan this week, White House and military officials said on Wednesday (May 29).

Although Navy officials insisted they did not hide the ship, the John S. McCain, they did give all of the sailors aboard the day off on Tuesday as Mr Trump visited Yokosuka Naval Base.

Two Navy sailors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said that the McCain sailors were not invited to hear Mr Trump speak that day aboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp, while sailors from other US warships at the base were.

One Navy sailor said that McCain sailors wearing their ship's patches were even turned away from the President's address.

White House aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly, confirmed the request was made but said that Mr Trump did not know about it.

A US official said on Wednesday that the White House sent an e-mail to the Navy with the request on May 15.

But the President on Wednesday night denied having any involvement. "I was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan," he said on Twitter.

 
 
 

Senator McCain, of Arizona, who died last year from brain cancer, was derided repeatedly during his life by Mr Trump, who once disparaged Mr McCain's service because he had been held as a war prisoner in Vietnam, saying, "I like people who weren't captured".

The President's animosity towards the senator did not subside with his death.

Navy officials approached last week by The New York Times about plans for the McCain during Mr Trump's visit declined to comment. But one official said on Thursday that sailors aboard the destroyer were told to hide signs that identified that warship during Mr Trump's visit.

The White House request to hide the name of Mr Trump's rival, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is the second episode to engulf the Navy in Mr Trump's single visit to the Wasp.

At least a few service members wore round patches emblazoned with a likeness of Mr Trump and the words "Make Aircrew Great Again" - a play on the President's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" - on their flight suits while listening to their commander in chief speak.

Images of the patches promptly went viral. "They're inappropriate & against regulation," tweeted Mr Mark Hertling, a retired three-star Army general.

Just days later, the Navy was embroiled in the McCain news. "All ships remained in normal configuration during the President's visit," said Commander Nate Christensen, a Navy spokesman.

In a statement late on Wednesday, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buccino, a spokesman for the acting defence secretary, Mr Patrick Shanahan, said that Mr Shanahan "was not aware of the directive to move the USS John S. McCain, nor was he aware of the concern precipitating the directive".

 
 

The destroyer John S. McCain is named after the senator, as well as his grandfather, John S. McCain Sr, a Navy admiral during World War II, and his father, John S. McCain Jr, an admiral in the Vietnam era.

The disclosure that the Navy entertained a request to hide a warship named after a war hero from a president who did not serve is likely to resurface questions about whether Mr Trump has politicised the military.

Mr Shanahan, the President's pick to become defence secretary - who was in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday and who will soon be visiting Tokyo - has taken pains to go along with White House requests, many of which were delayed by his predecessor, Mr Jim Mattis. But this effort could make Mr Shanahan's confirmation fight in Congress more difficult.