The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New details on the bizarre effort to hide the USS John S. McCain for Trump

The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain conducts routine underway operations in December 2020. (Mass Communication Spec. 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy/AP)
6 min

It’s one of those Trump controversies that you might have somehow forgotten, due to the volume of such flaps.

The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2019 that the military had worked to obscure the USS John S. McCain ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to a neighboring ship in Japan. It was a decision that apparently stemmed from Trump’s feuds with the decorated war hero and late senator, who was added as a namesake for the ship initially named for his father and grandfather. But the senator had died just nine months prior, rendering the effort particularly bizarre.

Trump initially seemed to confirm that someone had tried to keep the ship out of sight, while emphasizing that he didn’t request it. But then he called the reporting into question, citing a statement from the Navy and suggesting that the report was “an exaggeration, or even Fake News.”

It was not fake news, as a batch of newly released emails reinforces and details.

The emails, obtained by Bloomberg News reporter Jason Leopold and by the Wall Street Journal through Freedom of Information Act requests, fill out the story of military officials responding to a request from the White House Military Office. Among the discoveries:

  • They show military officials saying repeatedly that this was a White House request, but also that officials didn’t want to put it in writing.
  • At one point, a military official was apparently so taken aback by the request that the person asked that it be confirmed. “I could see that becoming a Tweet,” the official added.
  • Another military official responded the next morning by saying, “This just makes me sad.”

While there were calls for investigations at the time, including by then-acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan and McCain’s successor in the Senate, Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), we’ve learned very little since then. And while it might not rank too high on the list of Trump-era controversies, it’s at the very least hugely emblematic of officials’ often-strange attempts to treat Trump with kid gloves, for fear of angering him.

The released emails stretch back to more than a month before Trump’s late-May 2019 visit. And while they redact virtually everything said by White House officials, the context makes clear that the request to hide the USS McCain did come from the White House.

On April 12, the director of the White House Military Office, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, replies to an email from Rear Adm. Ted LeClair, the deputy commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is headquartered in Japan. The contents of the email are almost entirely redacted.

On April 22, the director of operations for the White House Military Office forwards another email (also almost completely redacted) to 7th Fleet officials.

On April 24, the chief of staff for the 7th Fleet replies, looping in five White House Military Office (WHMO) addresses and a public affairs officer. “Clay — get this worked ASAP with Charlie Brown at [U.S. Pacific Fleet] and see what you can provide,” the email says.

On May 15 comes the first unredacted reference to obscuring the USS John S. McCain. An official in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command writes to fellow military officials, “Please see below for excerpt from discussions between WHMO and” the 7th Fleet. Among three directions listed: “3. USS John McCain needs to be out of sight.” It instructs recipients to “please confirm #3 will be satisfied.”

One recipient forwards the email, pasting only the text of that directive. In another email, potentially from the same official, the instructions are forwarded with the comments:

Just talked to [REDACTED] on bullet number 3. He is checking on the validity.
3. USS John McCain needs to be out of sight.
I could see that becoming a Tweet…

One of the recipients replies by saying, “This just makes me sad…”

Further emails reference the White House requesting that the ship be obscured. A May 24 email from the 7th Fleet chief of staff cites “the WH request to keep the name not visible” and “that JSM be ‘kept out of sight.’ ”

“We asked for a formal order but non [sic] was forthcoming,” the email states.

The same day, another official runs through the situation, saying, “This direction was passed to” someone in the White House Military Office, “who in turn provided this guidance to” the 7th Fleet. The email also cites a Davids email to LeClair — potentially the April 12 email above — “emphasizing the importance of making sure this happens.”

And for the first time, it references a Navy official who “took additional steps by hanging the … brow banner,” while emphasizing this was “NOT directed” by the 7th Fleet.

While the “brow banner” reference isn’t clear, the Wall Street Journal published a photo of what it called a “tarp” covering the ship’s name. The photo was taken the same day as the email — May 24.

Later on May 24, the 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer, emails the Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. John C. Aquilino, and again cites the request as coming from the White House Military Office. He says that the “banner” and “paint scaffolding” were used to “ensure JSM name was not visible” from the USS Wasp, the ship on which Trump would appear:

We received an RFI re tasking ‘to keep MCCAIN out of sight’ during the upcoming DV1 visit. A rough reconstructed sequence of events follows:
* O/A 15 May: WHMO requested (SIPR traffic) to ensure JSM was not visible from WSP.
* This WHMO request was later (o/a 16 May) pushed out by INDOPACOM planners to JTF POTUS and component commanders. ALCON were tracking this as a requirement though it was not listed in the IPC PLANORD.
* Based on the tasking above, organizations under my OPCON leaned forward to ensure JSM name was not visible from WASP. This includes:
--Designating JSM as the CDS-15 Flagship. CDS-15 banner is now on the JSM brow (vice a JSM banner)
--Placing a paint scaffolding at the stern of the ship. This partially obscures the ship’s name.
--JSM’s 4-day Memorial Day weekend runs from Saturday through Tuesday (the day of DV1 visit)
(Note: All you see from the WASP wrt JSM is JSM’s bow and the hull name 56)

(The “weekend” reference appears to cite another detail reported by the Journal: That “sailors on the ship, who typically wear caps bearing its name, were given the day off during Mr. Trump’s visit.”)

Sawyer recommended “no further actions” and added that “this includes ‘undoing’ anything that has been done (brow banner, paint scaffolding).”

Further emails from May 25 feature military officials trying to account for those actions and again noting that other military officials resisted putting instructions in writing.

The tarp was taken down that day, the Navy confirmed. The Journal reported that a barge later blocked the name but was also moved.

After the controversy exploded, the Navy issued a statement noting that the name of the ship was not obscured during Trump’s visit — but without acknowledging that it had been previously, and deliberately so. Trump seized upon this, tweeting: “The Navy put out a disclaimer on the McCain story. Looks like the story was an exaggeration, or even Fake News — but why not, everything else is!”

Yet again, the fake news was instead coming from inside the Oval Office.