WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Thursday he knew nothing about White House efforts to hide a Navy destroyer named in part after the late Senator John McCain during a visit to Japan this week. But, he said, whoever made the request was “well meaning” and knew that Mr. Trump did not like Mr. McCain, escalating the president’s continued fight with a dead war hero.
The request to hide the war ship was an effort to keep Mr. McCain’s name out of photographs while Mr. Trump was in Yokosuka. The destroyer is named after the senator, as well as his grandfather, John S. McCain Sr., a Navy admiral during World War II, and his father, John S. McCain Jr., an admiral in the Vietnam War era.
“Now, somebody did it because they thought I didn’t like him, O.K.?” Mr. Trump said Thursday. “They were well-meaning, I will say. I didn’t know anything about it. I would never have done that.”
“So, I wasn’t a fan of John McCain, I never will be,” Mr. Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “But certainly I couldn’t care less whether or not there’s a boat named after his father.”
The war ship is docked in Japan and undergoing repairs from a 2017 accident that left 10 American sailors dead.
Critics were quick to call out Mr. Trump for what they said was a petty war of words against Mr. McCain, who died last year of brain cancer. They also derided the president for what they said appeared to be his attempts to divide the typically apolitical American military.
“We have a long history of keeping our military apolitical,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who is a former top Pentagon official. “The president’s team felt it was appropriate to politicize this event.”
The Navy has said it did not hide the ship, but sailors aboard the McCain were given the day off on Tuesday, when Mr. Trump visited the Yokosuka Naval Base.
Sailors assigned to the McCain also were not invited to attend the president’s speech on the assault ship Wasp, while all of the other American war ships at the harbor were invited to send 60 to 70 sailors. When some McCain sailors arrived at Mr. Trump’s speech in their uniforms, they were turned away.
Current and former Navy officers who served in Asia expressed alarm at the reports.
“If this was requested, it would have been highly unusual, and someone in uniform needed to have a more questioning attitude,” said Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, a retired aircraft carrier strike group commander in Japan who later served on Senator McCain’s committee staff.
Even as Mr. Trump insisted he never would have pulled such a stunt, he repeated his reasons for why he disliked Mr. McCain.
“John McCain killed health care for the Republican Party, and he killed health care for the nation,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday, a reference to the late senator’s critical vote against the president’s health care proposal in July 2017.
He also said Mr. McCain had carried “a lot” of responsibility for former President George W. Bush’s decision “to go into the Middle East, which was a catastrophe.”
Mr. Trump regularly lashed out at Mr. McCain while the senator was alive and has remained critical since he died. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump also dismissed Mr. McCain’s service in Vietnam, where he was held as a war prisoner, saying he was not a hero. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Mr. Trump said in 2015.
Just last month, Mr. Trump repeated one of his favorite insults — that Mr. McCain finished “last in his class” at the Naval Academy (Mr. McCain actually graduated fifth from the bottom).
“It’s beyond petty — it’s disgraceful and the White House should be embarrassed,” Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and a West Point graduate, said in a statement to The New York Times about Mr. Trump’s latest round of insults.
“It’s clear that Mr. Trump doesn’t understand service or sacrifice, and our service members deserve better,” Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq, said in a Twitter post.
Representative Jim Langevin, Democrat of Rhode Island, said, “It speaks volumes that the president’s staff would dishonor an American hero to protect the president’s ego.”