A portrait of the autocrat as a small man:
It’s one of those Trump controversies that you might have somehow forgotten, due to the volume of such flaps.
The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2019 that the military had worked to obscure the USS John S. McCain ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to a neighboring ship in Japan. It was a decision that apparently stemmed from Trump’s feuds with the decorated war hero and late senator, who was added as a namesake for the ship initially named for his father and grandfather. But the senator had died just nine months prior, rendering the effort particularly bizarre.
Trump initially seemed to confirm that someone had tried to keep the ship out of sight, while emphasizing that he didn’t request it. But then he called the reporting into question, citing a statement from the Navy and suggesting that the report was “an exaggeration, or even Fake News.”
It was not fake news, as a batch of newly released emails reinforces and details.
The emails, obtained by Bloomberg News reporter Jason Leopold and by the Wall Street Journal through Freedom of Information Act requests, fill out the story of military officials responding to a request from the White House Military Office. Among the discoveries:
- They show military officials saying repeatedly that this was a White House request, but also that officials didn’t want to put it in writing.
- At one point, a military official was apparently so taken aback by the request that the person asked that it be confirmed. “I could see that becoming a Tweet,” the official added.
- Another military official responded the next morning by saying, “This just 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 very little since then. And while it might not rank too high on the list of Trump-era controversies, it’s at the very least hugely emblematic of officials’ often-strange attempts to treat Trump with kid gloves, for fear of angering him.
The released emails stretch back to more than a month before Trump’s late-May 2019 visit. And while they redact virtually everything said by White House officials, the context makes clear that the request to hide the USS McCain did come from the White House.
On April 12, the director of the White House Military Office, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, replies to an email from Rear Adm. Ted LeClair, the deputy commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is headquartered in Japan. The contents of the email are almost entirely redacted.
On April 22, the director of operations for the White House Military Office forwards another email (also almost completely redacted) to 7th Fleet officials.
On April 24, the chief of staff for the 7th Fleet replies, looping in five White House Military Office (WHMO) addresses and a public affairs officer. “Clay — get this worked ASAP with Charlie Brown at [U.S. Pacific Fleet] and see what you can provide,” the email says.
On May 15 comes the first unredacted reference to obscuring the USS John S. McCain. An official in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command writes to fellow military officials, “Please see below for excerpt from discussions between WHMO and” the 7th Fleet. Among three directions listed: “3. USS John McCain needs to be out of sight.” It instructs recipients to “please confirm #3 will be satisfied.”
By itself this seems like a small thing, in the context of coup attempts, shakedowns of allied governments, botched pandemic responses, etc. etc. etc.
But sometimes a small thing captures the essence of the moment, and the Trump moment, which we are all still very much in the midst of, is about more than anything else the sheer mind-bending pettiness of the autocrat, who sees the entire apparatus of the state as nothing more than an extension of his Empire of Grift.
That this man was and may be again president of the United States is something that should never cease to produce the most profound shock in anyone who still cares about the fate of this country.