The White House wanted the US Navy to keep a warship named after late senator John McCain out of Donald Trump’s sight during his trip to Japan, US officials have said.
The Wall Street Journal said a US Indo-Pacific Command official wrote an email to Navy and Air Force officials about the president’s arrival in Japan over Memorial Day weekend.
It included instructions for the proper landing areas for helicopters and preparations for the USS Wasp, the ship on which the president was to speak.
The official then issued a third instruction: “USS John McCain needs to be out of sight,” according to the email, which was obtained by the Journal and whose existence was confirmed to the Associated Press by three sources.
When a Navy commander expressed surprise at the instruction, the US 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.
In response to the story, Mr Trump — who feuded with Mr McCain publicly for years and at one point mocked his military service — 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”.
The president notably did not say he was not informed about the ship before his visit to Japan.
Acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters: “When I read about it this morning, it was the first I heard about it.
“I never authorised, I never approved any action around the movement or activities regarding that ship.”
He said he would never dishonour the memory of a great American like Mr McCain or disrespect the young men and women in the crew of the ship.
The Wall Street Journal said a tarpaulin was placed over the USS John S McCain’s name before Mr Trump’s arrival, according to photos it reviewed, and that sailors were instructed to remove any coverings from the ship that included its name.
Navy Commander Clay Doss, spokesman for the US 7th Fleet, said the tarpaulin was on the ship on Friday but was removed by Saturday morning, the day Mr Trump arrived, adding: “All ships remained in normal configuration during the president’s visit.”
Two US officials told the AP all the ships in the harbour were lined up for Mr Trump’s visit, and they were visible from the USS Wasp. The officials said most of the names probably could not be seen since they were side by side but the name of the USS John S McCain could be seen from the pier.
Asked if the tarpaulin was meant to block Mr Trump’s view of the ship, the officials said it had been placed on the ship for maintenance and removed for the visit.
Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, Navy public affairs officer, tweeted: “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.”
The Journal reported that sailors on the USS John S McCain, who usually wear hats with the ship’s name on, were given the day off when Mr Trump visited.
Mr Trump and Mr McCain had a frosty relationship and that continued, on Mr Trump’s part, even after Mr McCain died of brain cancer in August 2018.
In 2015, Mr McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, got under then-candidate Mr Trump’s skin by saying he had “fired up the crazies” at a rally in Phoenix. Mr Trump later told a crowd in Iowa Mr McCain was only a war hero “because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured”.
After Mr Trump took office, Mr McCain established himself as a leading critic and incensed the president by blocking his efforts to repeal Barack Obama’s health care law.
The president was not welcome at Mr McCain’s funeral and raised the White House’s US flag back to full-mast shortly after his death, despite US Flag Code stating it should remain at half-mast for another day.
Mr McCain’s daughter Meghan tweeted on Wednesday that Mr 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.”