Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump said Thursday he "couldn't care less" whether a US Navy destroyer bears the name of his late rival John McCain, but insisted he would not have ordered hiding the vessel from view during his Japan trip.
US media reported that efforts were made to obscure the USS John S. McCain's name during Trump's visit to an American military facility in Japan on Tuesday, accusations also denied by the Pentagon.
"I don't know what happened, I wasn't involved. I would not have done that," Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the incident.
"I wasn't a fan of John McCain and never will be," Trump added, acknowledging he was "very angry" with the senator, a fellow Republican, for blocking Trump's 2017 effort to dismantle the existing health care law.
"But I certainly couldn't care less whether or not there's a boat named after his father."
Crew serving aboard the 154-meter (505-foot) vessel, whose uniforms bear the ship's name, were prevented from attending a speech Trump delivered from a neighboring ship, the reports said.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday denied approving plans to hide the destroyer, which was originally named after McCain's grandfather and father -- both US Navy admirals -- and was rededicated to include senator McCain as a namesake.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story, said Shanahan was aware of concern about the ship's name and "approved measures to ensure it didn't interfere with the president's visit."
But Shanahan, currently in Asia on a regional tour, denied any involvement.
"I never authorized and never approved any action around the movement or activity regarding that ship," he told reporters.
He said he would "never dishonor the memory of a great American patriot like John McCain," and would "never disrespect the young men and women that crew that ship."
Shanahan said he had asked his chief of staff to look into the matter, and Trump himself said "we'll probably be able to find out who" sought to hide the ship and its name.
"Somebody did it because they thought I didn't like him, OK?" Trump said. "They were well-meaning."
- 'Out of sight' -
The Journal said the request came from an official briefed by the White House and the Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan.
"USS John McCain needs to be out of sight," the email seen by the Journal said. "Please confirm #3 will be satisfied," it added, referring to the request.
The order apparently posed a conundrum because the ship was undergoing repairs and would have been difficult to move before Trump's Tuesday visit.
In response, a tarpaulin was hung over the ship's name, the Journal said. The tarpaulin was removed before Trump arrived, but a barge was moved closer to the ship, blocking the view of its name.
A spokesman for the Seventh Fleet told AFP that photographs showing the tarp over the ship's name were from Friday and that the barge was moved out of the way days before Trump arrived.
"All ships remained in normal configuration during the president's visit," Commander Clay Doss said.
The New York Times said sailors from the McCain were not invited to hear Trump speak, unlike those serving on other US warships at the base.
When several showed up anyway, they were turned away.
- 'Threatened' by McCain -
Trump had a combative political relationship with McCain, who was taken prisoner and tortured during the Vietnam war.
Despite never serving in the military himself, Trump mocked the Republican's war hero status in 2015.
McCain, a respected figure in US politics for decades and who himself ran for president twice, withdrew his support for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Before the senator died of brain cancer last year at age 81, he said he did not want Trump to attend his funeral.
Even after McCain's death, the president has continued to make his dislike clear, something that has antagonized the senator's daughter Meghan McCain.
"Trump is a child who will always be deeply threatened by the greatness of my dads incredible life," she tweeted late Wednesday after the reports emerged.
Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, a US military veteran who served in Afghanistan, had harsh words for the commander in chief.
"This is not a show. Our military is not a prop," Buttigieg tweeted. "Ships and sailors are not to be toyed with for the benefit of a fragile president's ego."