The U.S. Navy warship USS John McCain, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, docked at the Subic Freeport about 70 miles west of Manila, Philippines in 2014. File.
The U.S. Navy warship USS John McCain, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, docked at the Subic Freeport about 70 miles west of Manila, Philippines in 2014. File. (Bullit Marquez / Associated Press)

On April 8, 1983, David Copperfield pulled off what many regard as the greatest magic act in history. Before a live audience, he caused the Statue of Liberty to disappear. On Liberty Island, a giant curtain was dropped and the 310-foot-tall American landmark had vanished. A helicopter even offered an aerial view. Shortly afterward, he brought the statue back reminding viewers that it represented rights and freedoms that “our ancestors” did not enjoy.

Thirty-six years later, the White House attempted an even more impressive illusion — make a U.S. Navy destroyer disappear during President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan last weekend. Given the ship’s size (505 feet from bow to stern), not to mention a crew of about 280, the task was daunting, and that raised a question: Why? Why cause a U.S. warship to vanish when you haven’t inked a deal to televise the moment on pay-per-view or even premium cable?


The ship in question was the USS John S. McCain. And, apparently, we can’t expect the nation’s president to witness that name or, horrors, have his photo taken with the family name of someone who dared criticize him lurking in the background.

Thus, instead of a tribute to “rights and freedoms,” it was a near-perfect homage to the Trump administration’s standard operating procedure. Pettiness? Check. Sycophancy? Sure had it. An effort to rewrite reality? Hey, that’s why it’s Alternative Fact of the Week. Narcissism? Does President Trump operate under any other ism? (Obstructionism doesn’t count as the president himself insists although special counsel Robert S. Mueller III sees it differently.) The magic act may not have gotten Copperfield TV ratings, but you can’t fault the perpetrators for sheer opportunism (sorry, we’re still on that “ism” kick).

Here’s how they tried to pull it off. As first reported late Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal, White House staffers were seriously worried about the McCain’s visibility, specifically that it “needs to be out of sight,” according to a leaked email. That set off a cascade of events including an attempt to move the ship from its berth (a possibility that was ultimately rejected), putting a tarp over the ship's name, giving sailors who wear the McCain name on their ball caps the day off and not inviting anyone from the ship to be involved in ceremonies involving Mr. Trump on the USS Wasp (all of which actually came to pass).

By early Thursday, officials were scrambling to deny involvement in the incident. That included President Trump who told reporters at the White House before heading out to Air Force Academy graduation ceremonies in Colorado that he was not involved and had no direct knowledge of it. He did, however, admit that he was not a “big fan” of the late senator but understood the motivations of his employees. “Now, somebody did it because they thought I didn’t like him, OK? And they were well-meaning,” he said.

Now, keeping in mind that the ship is originally named after the deceased senator’s namesake father and grandfather, both of whom were Navy admirals, before John S. McCain III was added at a rededication ceremony last summer, how notable is it that a sitting president could immediately sympathize with any staff seeking to cater to his ego over respecting the sacred honor bestowed on distinguished Navy officers, not to mention the integrity of those 280 individuals who serve on that vessel? What’s next? Siding with one of the world’s worst dictators and greatest threats to world peace against a former U.S. vice president in front of an overseas audience? Oh, right, that happened last weekend, too — Memorial Day weekend, incidentally.

It was fair to disagree with Senator McCain. We certainly did on a number of issues. It’s not acceptable, however, to treat a U.S. destroyer like an involuntary magic prop. Nor, frankly, should a sitting president or his staff seek to besmirch a much-admired veteran’s military service record as President Trump has done repeatedly (“I like people who weren’t captured,” was Mr. Trump’s infamous put-down of the former Vietnam War POW). The most telling moment of the whole affair was not the failed disappearing act, it was how so many people in the chain of command treated the request as routine and were ready to act upon it. Shame on them and anyone who thinks this embarrassing episode is acceptable, business-as-usual fare.