SEOUL, South Korea — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he does not yet intend to call for an inspector general investigation into a White House request that the USS John S. McCain be obscured for President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan over Memorial Day weekend. But Shanahan left open the possibility that his decision could change after he returns to Washington from his current Asia tour, reviews the facts of the allegations deeper, and speaks to Pentagon staff.
“No, I’m not planning any IG investigation… because there was nothing really carried out,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him in on Sunday, in a press briefing aboard his plane. ”
But later, he said that he was not planning to refer the matter to the inspector general “right now” because “I want to follow through with the facts.” He said that he still wants answers to questions like “when this information came in, how was it dealt with?”
The incident has raised concerns about politicization of the military and whether the Trump White House sought to circumvent the chain of command with the unusual request, which came directly from a still-unknown White House Military Office official to the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan. According to Shanahan, who earlier in the week directed his chief of staff to look into the matter, the White House official’s request was not followed. Initially, The Wall Street Journal reported that sailors from the McCain were kept away from the Trump visit and a tarp covered the ship’s name. Shanahan said that those sailors were on a previously-scheduled leave, not one designed to keep them away from the event with the president, and that a tarp that was photographed before Trump’s arrival covering the name of the ship was there for routine maintenance purposes and was removed by the time of the president’s arrival.
The incident has raised questions about why a White House official would make the request directly of a local fleet instead of going through the defense secretary’s office. But Shanahan shrugged off concerns about a breakdown in the chain of command, saying, “There’s no restriction on how people can send email.”
Shanahan suggested that he had not had time to review the situation in any depth, saying that he had been “focused on a lot of other operational issues in the world” during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile security conference in Singapore this week. Asked if he has confidence in his chief of staff Eric Chewning’s review of the matter, Shanahan said “These were the facts that were reported back to me.”
“When I get back and I can sit with the people who’ve reviewed this, I’ll be able to get a sense of the comprehensiveness.”
Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, told reporters that on Friday the acting secretary instructed Chewning to speak with the White House Military Office to “reaffirm his mandate that the Department of Defense will not be politicized.” The secretary is also considering implementing formal guidance for units assisting with VIP events, clarifying who they should be taking instruction from and what policy to follow, according to a defense official.
Shanahan said he has not spoken with Trump about the incident.
Trump has been a virulent critic of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dating back to the campaign trail when he said that the former Vietnam prisoner-of-war was not a “war hero” because he had been captured. According to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the White House’s instruction, the directive to obscure the ship was made out of concern that Trump would be angered by its presence.
Shanahan said that he called the senator’s widow Cindy McCain in the wake of the incident, but declined to detail their conversation. “It was a private conversation,” Shanahan said.
“There’s no room for politicizing the military,” Shanahan said. “We don’t need that.”