Mystery of the week: Who ordered the USS McCain “out of sight” of Trump? Trump: “Never” would have asked that


Not me, says Donald Trump. Not me either, says Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that they have an e-mail from a Navy official who ordered the USS McCain to remain out of Trump’s sight during his recent visit to Japan. That order resulted from a White House request, the officer explained in his message:

In a May 15 email to U.S. Navy and Air Force officials, a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official outlined plans for the president’s arrival that he said had resulted from conversations between the White House Military Office and the Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy. In addition to instructions for the proper landing areas for helicopters and preparation for the USS Wasp—where the president was scheduled to speak—the official issued a third directive: “USS John McCain needs to be out of sight.”

“Please confirm #3 will be satisfied,” the official wrote.

When a Navy commander expressed surprise about the directive for the USS John S. McCain, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official replied: “First I heard of it as well.” He said he would work with the White House Military Office to obtain more information about the order.

The WSJ points the finger at Shanahan:

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was aware of the concern about the presence of the USS John McCain in Japan and approved measures to ensure it didn’t interfere with the president’s visit, a U.S. official said.

Absolutely untrue, Shanahan responded this morning, saying it was the first he’d heard about the issue:

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CBS News has a copy of the same e-mail, confirming the WSJ report but carries Shanahan’s denial. They also report the Navy’s denial about a rumor that the WSJ started last night about the USS McCain covering its name with a tarp during Trump’s Memorial Day visit. The picture that started the rumor was taken days earlier, the Navy says:

The Journal reported that a tarp 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.

The Navy’s Chief of Information, Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, tweeted Wednesday night that, “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 Pacific Fleet spokesperson confirmed to CBS News that, “The picture of the tarp is from Friday and it was taken down on Saturday. All ships remained in normal configuration during the President’s visit.”

Martin says the McCain’s commanding officer was on the ship on Saturday and the tarp was gone. “The admiral in command of the 7th Fleet, Adm. Bill Sawyer, is credited with directing that nothing would be covered up,” Martin adds.

The Associated Press also confirmed the existence of the order via “three U.S. officials,” and said that the order originated in “the White House.” Otherwise, their report echoes that of the WSJ and CBS, while also clarifying some other details of the story. Supposedly a paint barge had been parked in front of the USS McCain to obscure it from Trump’s view, but the AP reports that barge had been moved before Trump’s arrival. The claim that sailors had been sent off the USS McCain was also mostly untrue, as were claims about uniforms:

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.

CNN, however, says the order originated in the White House Military Office, got passed to lower-grade officers, and was kiboshed once commanders learned of it:

The White House Military Office and lower-level US Navy officials exchanged emails about moving the Navy warship the USS John McCain ahead of President Donald Trump’s recent Japan visit, according to two Navy officials.

“There were emails between lower-level officers, but once leadership heard about it, they said knock it off,” a senior Navy official tells CNN. The White House Military Office provides military support for White House functions, including food service, presidential transportation, medical support and emergency medical services and hospitality services.

It appears that the WSJ had a good story with the memo itself, but then got out over its skis while listening to the rumor mill. It seems unlikely that a Navy officer would have created such a memo just on a hunch. So who at the White House wanted the USS McCain to remain “out of sight”? What about the man for whom the order was issued? Trump went on Twitter late last night to deny ever asking the Navy to hide the USS McCain:

The AP tried to parse this into a cover-up of its own kind:

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.”

Trump notably didn’t say that he was not informed about the ship before his visit to Japan. A message seeking clarification was left late Wednesday for White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

Er … that’s not all that “notably,” especially since Trump isn’t all that clever on Twitter in the first place. It’s a firm denial, so the question isn’t whether Trump is engaging in Clintonian nuance about the meaning of “during.” It’s whether he’s flat-out lying about the order.

Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know for sure unless the “White House official” goes on the record with the full story. Trump has acted with remarkable pettiness at times in regard to the late Senator John McCain, whose grandfather is the ship’s namesake. It’s difficult to believe that Trump would extend such pettiness to naval operations, though, but it’s equally difficult to grasp why anyone would. And someone must have, because that order didn’t come out of thin air. The best bet is that someone in the White House acted on what he or she thought Trump would want, but even that’s a bit thin. Why would the White House Military Office make this an issue unless someone first made it an issue with them?

One thing’s for sure — that kind of order won’t get issued again. Nor should it have been issued in the first place.

Update: Trump says that he didn’t ask anyone to hide the USS McCain and “never” would have thought to do so, but that whoever did was “well meaning.”

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