The White House told the U.S. Navy to keep a warship named for the late Sen. John McCain, with whom Trump long feuded, out of Trump's sight during his trip to Japan, three U.S. officials said.
A Republican, McCain nevertheless broke with the president in key areas. He incensed Trump with his thumbs-down vote foiling the effort to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. Trump also mocked McCain's military service, which included years of imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official wrote an email to Navy and Air Force officials about Trump's arrival in Japan over Memorial Day weekend. It included instructions for preparations for the USS Wasp, the ship on which Trump was to speak.
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"USS John McCain needs to be out of sight," according to the email, obtained by the Journal and whose existence was confirmed to The Associated Press by three U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private email correspondence.
When a Navy commander expressed surprise at the instruction, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official answered, "First I heard of it as well," the Journal reported. The official said he would talk to the White House Military Office to get more information about the directive, the newspaper reported.
Late Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he "was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan."
On Thursday, he elaborated to reporters that he had nothing to do with directing the Navy to keep the ship out of sight, but said that whoever did it was "well meaning."
"Somebody did it because they thought I didn't like him," Trump said as he left the White House, adding that he "would never do a thing like that" even though he "wasn't a fan."
In Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday morning, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters, "When I read about it this morning, it was the first I heard about it." He told reporters traveling with him to a security conference in Singapore he would look into the reports.
Shanahan said he would never dishonor the memory of a great American like McCain or disrespect the young men and women in the crew of the ship.
"I never authorized, I never approved any action around the movement or activities regarding that ship," Shanahan said. He said the military "needs to do their job" and stay out of politics.
The Journal, citing photos it reviewed, reported that a tarp was placed over the USS John S. McCain's name before Trump's arrival and that sailors were instructed to remove any coverings from the ship that included its name.
Asked if the tarp was meant to block Trump's view of the ship, the officials said the tarp had been placed on the ship for maintenance and removed for the visit. U.S. Navy Cdr. Clay Doss, spokesman for U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP that the tarp was on the ship on Friday but was removed by Saturday morning, the day Trump arrived.
"All ships remained in normal configuration during the President's visit," he said.
Two U.S. officials told AP that all the ships in the harbor were lined up for Trump's visit, and they were visible from the USS Wasp. The officials said most of their names probably could not be seen since they were side by side but that the name of the USS John S. McCain could be seen from the pier.
Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, Navy public affairs officer, tweeted Wednesday night: "The name of USS John S. McCain was not obscured during the POTUS visit to Yokosuka on Memorial Day. The Navy is proud of that ship, its crew, its namesake and its heritage."
A paint barge was in front of the USS John S. McCain on Saturday morning when 7th Fleet officials walked the pier to see how everything looked for the visit. The barge was then ordered to be moved and was gone by the time Trump arrived, the officials said.
The Journal reported that sailors on the USS John S. McCain, who usually wear hats with the ship's name on it, were given the day off when Trump visited.
Two U.S. officials told the AP that sailors on the USS John S. McCain were not told to stay away but that many were away for the long weekend. The officials also said that about 800 sailors from more than 20 ships and Navy commands were on the USS Wasp during the president's visit, and all wore the same Navy hat that has no logo, rather than wearing individual ship or command hats.
McCain, who died in August of 2018, established himself as a leading Trump critic, opposing Trump's immigration-limiting order, warning him against coziness with Moscow and lecturing him on the illegality of torture
Trump was not welcome at McCain's funeral and raised the White House's U.S. flag back to full-staff shortly after McCain's death, despite U.S. Flag Code stating that it should remain at half-staff for another day. The flag returned to half-staff later in the day.
McCain's daughter Meghan tweeted Wednesday that Trump will "always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dads incredible life."
She added, "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. So I have to stand up for him.
"It makes my grief unbearable."