The Pentagon has told the White House to keep the military out of politics, after someone from the White House directed the Navy to keep the warship USS John S. McCain “out of sight” when President Donald Trump visited Japan.
“On Friday, May 31, Secretary Shanahan directed his Chief of Staff to speak with the White House Military Office and reaffirm his mandate that the Department of Defense will not be politicized,” Shanahan’s spokesman Army Lt. Col. Joe Buccino said Sunday.
Eric Chewning, Shanahan’s chief of staff, told the defense secretary that he had reinforced this message to the White House, according to Buccino.
“There’s no room for politicizing the military,” Shanahan told reporters aboard a U.S. military aircraft en route to Seoul. “We take these things seriously, and my office and others will deal with it directly.”
The directive to hide the USS John S. McCain from Trump was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
An email seen by VOA showed discussions about the warship between the White House Military Office and an officer with the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet ahead of Trump’s trip.
“USS John McCain needs to be out of sight,” reads the email’s third bullet-pointed request.
“Please confirm #3 will be satisfied,” the email emphasized.
Shanahan confirmed Sunday that the White House Military Office gave the directive that the warship should be hidden from view “directly” to the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which manages naval operations in the Western Pacific.
“The directive was not carried out,” Shanahan added.
According to Shanahan, officials have told him that a white tarp was placed over the ship’s stern on the days preceding the visit, but the tarp was for “hull preservation” and was removed prior to the president’s visit.
A paint barge was moved the day prior to Trump’s visit “to support ongoing maintenance,” but the barge “did not obscure the view of the ship during the visit,” said Shanahan.
Sailors with the USS John S. McCain and the USS Stethem were on a 96-hour Memorial Day weekend liberty unrelated to the visit and did not participate in the Trump event, he confirmed.
VOA had previously reported these details provided by a U.S. Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Shanahan said he had called the late Senator John McCain’s wife “a couple days ago” after news of the incident broke, but declined to discuss the “private conversation.
On Thursday, Shanahan said he did not authorize and was not aware of the White House directive to hide the USS John S. McCain from Trump.
“I would never dishonor the memory of a great American patriot like Senator [John] McCain,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him. “I’d never disrespect the young men and women who crew that ship.”
Trump tweeted Thursday that he was not informed about the controversy surrounding the USS John S. McCain during his visit to Japan.
The president later told reporters outside the White House that whoever was involved in the move was “well meaning” but that he was unaware of the decision to hide the warship.
“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t involved. I would not have done that,” he said, adding, “I was not a big fan of John McCain in any way, shape or form.”
Trump frequently feuded with longtime Republican senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who died last year.
The USS McCain was originally named for the senator’s father and grandfather, both Navy admirals, and now honors all three men.