Trump initially appeared to confirm that someone had tried to keep the ship out of sight, but emphasized that he had not asked for it. But then he questioned the reporting, citing a statement from the Navy and suggesting the report was “an exaggeration, or even fake news.”
It wasn’t fake news, as a series of newly released emails confirm and provide details.
The emails, obtained by Bloomberg News reporter Jason Leopold and by the Wall Street Journal through Freedom of Information Act requests, complete the story of military officials responding to a request from the White House Military Office. Among the discoveries:
- They show military officials repeatedly saying that this was a White House request, but also that officials would not put it in writing.
- At one point, a military official was apparently so surprised by the request that the person asked for confirmation. “I could see that became a Tweet,” the official added.
- Another military official responded the next morning by saying, “This just makes me sad.”
Although calls for investigations were made at the time, including by then Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and McCain’s Senate successor Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), we have learned very little since then. And while it may not be too high on the list of Trump-era controversies, it is at the very least hugely emblematic of officials’ often strange attempts to treat Trump with velvet gloves for fear of angering him.
The released emails date back more than a month before Trump’s visit in late May 2019. And while they’re redacting pretty much 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, Vice Admiral Keith Davids, answers an email from Vice Admiral Ted LeClair, the deputy commander of the US 7th Fleet, which is headquartered in Japan. The content of the email is almost completely redacted.
On April 22, the director of operations of the White House military office sends another email (also almost completely redacted) to officials of the 7th Fleet.
On April 24, the Chief of Staff of the 7th Fleet replies, pulling in five White House (WHMO) addresses and a public affairs official. “Clay – get this working ASAP with Charlie Brown on” [U.S. Pacific Fleet] and see what you can offer,” the email reads.
On May 15th comes the first raw reference to the eclipse of the USS John S. McCain. A US Indo-Pacific Command official writes to fellow military officials: “See below for an excerpt from the discussions between the WHMO and” the 7th Fleet. Among the three directions mentioned: “3. USS John McCain must be out of sight.” It instructs recipients to “confirm that #3 will be met.”
One recipient forwards the email and just pastes the text of that directive. In another email, possibly from the same officer, the instructions are forwarded with the comments:
Just talked to [REDACTED] on bullet 3. He checks the validity.
3. USS John McCain should be out of sight.
I saw it turned into a Tweet…
One of the recipients replies by saying, “This just makes me sad…”
Further emails refer to the White House requesting that the ship be concealed. A May 24 e-mail from the Chief of Staff of the 7th Fleet cites “WH’s request to keep the name hidden” and “that JSM is being kept ‘out of sight’.” ”
“We asked for a formal order, but not [sic] was forthcoming,” the email reads.
The same day, another official goes through the situation, saying, “This direction was passed to” someone from the White House Military Bureau” who in turn directed “the 7th Fleet.” The email also quotes an email from Davids to LeClair – possibly the April 12 email above – “emphasizing the importance of ensuring this happens.”
And for the first time, it refers to a Navy official who “took extra steps by putting up the … eyebrow banner,” while stressing 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. Prior to the voyage, a tarp was draped over the ship’s name and sailors — who wear caps bearing the ship’s name — were given a day off for Trump’s visit. of@gluboldhttps://t.co/6ugPceCOre pic.twitter.com/KuIoWJK5Kt
— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) May 29, 2019
While the reference to the “brow banner” 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 on the same day as the email – May 24.
Later on May 24, the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Phillip G. Sawyer, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, e-mailed adm. John C. Aquilino, citing again that the request comes from the White House military office. He says the “banner” and “paint jetty” were used to “make sure the JSM name was not visible” of the USS Wasp, the ship Trump was to appear on:
We received an RFI order to ‘keep MCCAIN out of sight’ during the upcoming DV1 visit. A roughly reconstructed sequence of events follows:
* P/A May 15: WHMO requested (SIPR traffic) to ensure JSM was not visible from WSP.
* This WHMO request was later (amongst others May 16) pushed to JTF POTUS and component commanders by INDOPACOM planners. ALCON kept this as a requirement, although it was not in the IPC-PLANORD.
* Based on the above task, organizations under my OPCON leaned forward to ensure that the JSM name was not visible from WASP. This includes:
— designate JSM as the flagship of the CDS-15. CDS-15 banner is now on the JSM brow (vice-a JSM banner)
–Placing a paint jetty on 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 DV1 visit)
(Note: all you see of the WASP vs. JSM is JSM’s bow and hull name 56)
(The reference to the “weekend” seems to quote another detail reported by the Journal: that “sailors on the ship, who usually wear hats with the name on them, were given a day off during Mr. Trump’s visit.” )
Sawyer advised “no further actions” and added that “this includes ‘undoing’ everything that has been done (eyebrow banner, paint scaffold).”
Further emails dated May 25 contain military officials trying to account for those actions and remarking that other military officials resist writing instructions.
The sail was broken 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 released a statement noting that the ship’s name had not been obscured during Trump’s visit — but without acknowledging that it had been before, and intentionally. Trump took this, tweeting: “The Navy has released a disclaimer on the McCain story. It seems that the story was exaggerated, or even fake news – but why not, everything else is!”
Again, the fake news came from inside the Oval Office instead.