The Navy was reportedly directed by the White House to keep the destroyer John S. McCain hidden during a Memorial Day visit by President Donald Trump to U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka.
A May 15 email obtained by the Wall Street Journal revealed instructions from White House staff in preparation for the president’s planned speech to about 800 sailors and Marines aboard the Japan-based amphibious assault ship Wasp, which is based in the same port as the McCain.
The email, which was reportedly shared between a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official, Air Force officials and the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, featured two instructions pertaining to the logistics of the president’s speaking engagement.
It was the third and final instruction that came as a surprise.
“USS John McCain needs to be out of sight,” the email stated, according to the WSJ. “Please confirm #3 will be satisfied.”
Because the ship remains out of service following a fatal August 2017 collision with the 600-foot-long oil tanker Alnic MC, a disaster that killed 10 sailors, moving it to an entirely different location would have presented a nearly insurmountable obstacle.
To compensate, the Navy draped a tarp over the ship to cover up the name, the WSJ reported.
Additionally, sailors wearing caps bearing the ship’s name were given the day off to avoid any potential McCain sightings.
The WSJ reported Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved the concealment course of action, as to avoid any unwanted tension during the president’s visit.
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Nate Christensen, deputy spokesman of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, disputed the report, telling Navy Times the tarp was placed on the ship on Friday, May 24, when the picture was taken, but was removed by Saturday morning, the day Trump arrived.
“All ships remained in normal configuration during the President’s visit," Christensen said.
One Navy official who spoke on background told Navy Times the McCain sailors were off that day due to a previously scheduled 96-hour Memorial Day liberty period, one that was unrelated to the president’s visit.
Multiple sailors speaking to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity contested the statements made by Navy officials, claiming every ship in Yokosuka was invited to send 60 to 70 sailors to see the president — every ship except the McCain.
Despite the lack of an invitation, a small party of McCain sailors wearing uniforms featuring their ship’s name and insignia decided to attend the president’s address, the sailors told the NYT.
They were subsequently turned away.
McCain has drawn the scorn of the president — in life and in death — following a long-running feud that dates back to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The late Arizona senator famously cast a thumbs-down vote that was instrumental in halting Trump’s push to repeal former President Barack Obama’s initiative of the Affordable Care Act.
During one interview, Trump downplayed McCain’s longstanding portrayal as a war hero for the five-plus years the former Navy pilot spent as a tortured prisoner of war after he was shot down over Vietnam, a time during which McCain was offered an early release, but refused.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said during the July 2015 interview. “I like people that weren’t captured.”
The destroyer, which was named for the late senator’s grandfather and father — both Navy admirals, had the younger McCain added as a namesake by Navy Secretary Richard Spencer during a July 2018 rededication ceremony.
McCain died the following month, succumbing to a long battle with brain cancer.
Online reaction to the Navy adhering to the White House’s “out of sight” request has been swift and critical.
The senator’s daughter, Meghan McCain, criticized the White House’s request, calling Trump “a child who will always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dads [sic] incredible life. There is a lot of criticism of how much I speak about my dad, but nine months since he passed, Trump won’t let him RIP.”
Trump, upon learning of the Wall Street Journal report, tweeted a rebuttal.
“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.
“Nevertheless, @FLOTUS and I loved being with our great Military Men and Women - what a spectacular job they do!”
The White House reportedly declined to answer questions regarding the unorthodox travel requests.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.