Trump initially seemed to confirm that someone had tried to keep the ship out of sight, while emphasizing that he did not ask for it. But he later disputed the report, citing a Navy statement and suggesting the report was “an exaggeration, or even fake news.”
This was not fake news, as a batch of newly released emails reinforces and details.
The emails obtained by Jason Leopold, reporter for Bloomberg News and for him Wall Street Journal via Freedom of Information Act requests, complete the story of military officers who responded to a request from the White House Military Office. Among the discoveries:
- They show military officials repeatedly saying that this was a request from the White House, but also that the officials did not want to put it in writing.
- At one point, a military official was apparently so taken aback by the request that the person asked for it to be confirmed. “I could see it turned into a Tweet,” the official added.
- Another military officer responded the next morning saying, “This 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 little since then. And while it may not rank too high on the list of Trump-era controversies, it is at least highly emblematic of officials’ often bizarre attempts to treat Trump with kid gloves, fearing make him angry
The published emails go back more than a month before Trump’s visit in late May 2019. And while they redact virtually everything said by White House officials, the context makes it clear that the request to hide the USS McCain came from the White House.
On April 12, the director of the White House Military Office, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, responds to an email from Rear Admiral. Ted LeClair, deputy commander of the US 7th Fleet, based in Japan. The content of the email is almost entirely redacted.
On April 22, the director of operations at the White House Military Office forwards another email (also largely redacted) to Seventh Fleet officials.
On April 24, the 7th Fleet chief of staff responds, entering five White House Military Office (WHMO) addresses and a public affairs officer. “Clay – get this going ASAP with Charlie Brown on [U.S. Pacific Fleet] and see what you can provide,” the email says.
On May 15 comes the first unredacted reference to the darkening of the USS John S. McCain. A US Indo-Pacific Command official writes to his fellow military officers: “Please see below for an excerpt from the conversations between WHMO and” 7th Fleet. Among the three addresses listed: “3. The USS John McCain must be out of sight.” He instructs recipients to “confirm that #3 will be satisfied.”
A recipient forwards the email, pasting only the text of that directive. In another email, possibly from the same official, the instructions are forwarded with the comments:
I just talked with [REDACTED] in bullet number 3. You are checking the validity.
3. The USS John McCain must be out of sight.
I could see it turned into a tweet…
One of the recipients responds by saying, “This makes me sad…”
Other emails refer to the White House requesting that the ship be hidden. A May 24 email from the 7th Fleet chief of staff cites “WH’s request to keep the name hidden” and “that JSM be ‘kept out of sight.'” ”
“We asked for a formal order but no [sic] was available,” the email says.
On the same day, another official discusses the situation, saying, “This address was passed to ‘someone in the White House Military Office,’ who in turn provided this guidance to ‘Seventh Fleet.'” The email also cites a email from Davids to LeClair, possibly the above email from April 12, “emphasizing the importance of making sure this happens.”
And for the first time, he references a Navy officer who “took extra steps by hanging the… forehead banner,” while emphasizing that this was “NOT directed” by the 7th Fleet.
NEW: The White House wanted the USS John McCain “out of sight” for Trump’s visit to Japan. A tarp was hung over the ship’s name before the voyage, and sailors, wearing caps bearing the ship’s name, were given the day off for Trump’s visit. w/@glubold pic.twitter.com/KuIoWJK5Kt
— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) May 29, 2019
While the reference to the “eyebrow banner” is unclear, the Wall Street Journal published a photo of what he called a “tarpaulin” covering the ship’s name. The photo was taken on the same day as the email: May 24.
Later, on May 24, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer emails Commander, Pacific Fleet Adm. John C. Aquilino, again citing the request as coming from the White House Military Office. He says the “banner” and “paint scaffolding” were used to “ensure the JSM name was not visible” from the USS Wasp, the ship Trump would appear on:
We received a new request for information to “keep MCCAIN out of sight” during the next DV1 visit. An approximate reconstructed sequence of events follows:
* O/A May 15: WHMO requested (SIPR traffic) to ensure JSM was not visible from WSP.
*This WHMO request was later submitted (as of May 16) by INDOPACOM planners to JTF POTUS and component commanders. ALCON was tracking this as a requirement, although it was not listed in the PLANORD IPC.
* Based on previous tasks, the organizations under my OPCON leaned forward to ensure that the JSM name was not visible from WASP. This includes:
–Designation of JSM as CDS-15 flagship. CDS-15 banner is now in front of JSM (as opposed to a JSM banner)
–Placement of a painting scaffold at the stern of the ship. This partially obscures the ship’s name.
–JSM’s 4-day Memorial Day weekend runs from Saturday to Tuesday (the day of the DV1 tour)
(Note: all you see of the WASP wrt JSM is the bow of JSM and the hull name 56)
(The reference to “weekend” appears to quote another detail reported by the Journal: that “the ship’s sailors, who normally wear caps with their names on them, were given the day off during Mr. Trump’s visit.”)
Sawyer recommended “no further action” and added that “this includes ‘undoing’ anything that has been done (front banner, paint scaffolding).”
Other emails from May 25 show military officials trying to account for those actions, again pointing out that other military officials resisted putting instructions in writing.
The tarp was removed that day, the Navy confirmed. The Journal reported that a barge later blocked the name but was also moved.
After the controversy erupted, the Navy issued a statement noting that the ship’s name was not withheld during Trump’s visit, but without acknowledging that it had been before, and deliberately so. Trump seized on this, tweeting: “The Navy has posted a disclaimer on the McCain story. It sounds like the story was an exaggeration, or even fake news, but why not? Everything else is!”
Once again, the fake news was coming from inside the Oval Office.