The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s dislike of McCain put defense officials in a tough spot even before they hid the warship bearing his name

President Trump, right, departs after speaking with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, before a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels in July 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Before President Trump headed to Japan last week, the White House had very precise ideas of how that trip was supposed to look. Or, more specifically, how it was not supposed to look.

The USS John S. McCain, the White House ordered, was to be kept out of view during the presidential visit, which included a stop at the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet USS Wasp in Tokyo Bay. A tarp was used to obscure the name, which is displayed on the ship, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the incident.

The request was originally made by his staff to keep Trump from being upset during the visit, according to one senior White House official who spoke to The Washington Post on Wednesday. But the president said he was unaware of the plans, writing on Twitter: “I was not informed about anything having to do with the Navy Ship USS John S. McCain during my recent visit to Japan.”

The tarp was removed before Trump’s visit after senior officials intervened.

In Europe, the incident may have triggered memories of a somewhat similar event last year.

After Republican Sen. John McCain’s death in August, three former NATO secretaries proposed naming the military alliance’s new headquarters in Brussels after him — an idea that was immediately celebrated by Trump critics, who also saw the move as a chance to unite much of Europe and North America around a man who had been deeply critical of the president. At the time, Trump critics predicted that the plans may end up being scrapped by NATO to avoid drawing the president’s fury. When NATO did indeed backtrack, they saw their predictions validated — even though naming NATO headquarters after McCain would never have been easy, regardless of Trump.

Early on in his presidency, Trump cast doubts over the future of the military alliance, including in an interview with Fox News in July, in which he was asked by host Tucker Carlson: “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” to which Trump responded: “I understand what you’re saying; I’ve asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. . . . They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. But that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”

NATO was created in 1949 to prevent possible Soviet attacks on the United States, Canada and a number of Western European nations. In case of an attack on one member, all NATO countries are required to rush to its defense.

Even though the Soviet threat is long gone and the United States spends more on defense than any other NATO member, the military alliance’s supporters argue that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Trump, however, has lashed out at other members like Germany for spending less on defense per capita than the United States does. Those tensions escalated in summer 2018, when even the breakup of the alliance appeared no longer impossible.

Amid those tensions, calls to name the alliance’s headquarters after a Trump critic were far-fetched from the beginning.

In a letter, former NATO secretaries Anders Fogh Rasmussen, George Robertson and Javier Solana wrote, “We believe that the transatlantic alliance is the cornerstone of a stable, peaceful and free world. Few things symbolise this alliance, and the enduring benefits of American global leadership, more vividly than the life and work of John McCain.”

“We urge Nato to repay this lifetime of service to its mission by naming its new Brussels headquarters after Senator McCain.”

Initially, NATO said it was considering the proposal, which within days also received bipartisan backing from lawmakers in Congress.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote at the time: “I am drafting a Senate Resolution supporting the naming of new #NATO HQ after him.”

NATO officials soon cautioned that naming the organization’s headquarters was unlikely, for other reasons than Trump. The organization’s current secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, said in September: “NATO doesn’t have a tradition of naming building[s] after politicians. We are 29 allies, with a lot of presidents, kings, heads of state and governments. So we haven’t introduced that tradition.”

Stoltenberg added: “We honor John McCain every day through the fact that we stand together and deliver strong, transatlantic deterrence.”

But to Trump’s critics, NATO’s unwillingness to seriously consider naming its headquarters after McCain was still also seen as the result of Trump’s history of bullying his allies and foes — at home and abroad.

That history appeared to also have been on the minds of White House officials in recent weeks, as they prepared Trump’s visit to Japan.

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White House wanted USS John S. McCain obscured during Trump’s Japan visit