WASHINGTON — Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s acting chief of staff, sought on Sunday to play down the White House’s directive to hide a Navy destroyer named after Senator John McCain during the president’s visit to a naval base in Japan last week.
Mr. Mulvaney said that a young White House staff member, knowing of Mr. Trump’s animosity toward Mr. McCain, most likely made the request to the Navy to block the warship from view. The Navy at first complied, placing a giant tarp over the name and then hiding it with a barge before senior admirals reversed the decision.
“If a 23- or 24-year-old person says, ‘Look, is it really a good idea for this ship to be in the background?’ that is not an unreasonable question,” Mr. Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday,” adding, “We think it’s much ado about nothing.”
Asked about the matter on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Mulvaney said it would be “silly” to fire the aide over the episode, which has drawn a torrent of criticism from retired military officers.
Mr. Trump insisted last week that he knew nothing about the hide-the-ship scheme, but called it a “well meaning” gesture.
The acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, had also said he was unaware of the White House directive, and on Sunday warned the White House in his strongest language yet not to politicize the nation’s armed forces, which have traditionally been viewed as apolitical.
“There is no room for politicizing the military,” Mr. Shanahan told reporters traveling with him to Seoul, South Korea.
Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Mr. Shanahan, said in a statement that the secretary’s chief of staff had conveyed that same message to the White House military office.
Mr. Shanahan had told reporters during a security conference in Singapore on Friday that he would not have moved the destroyer to keep it out of photos with Mr. Trump, and asked his chief of staff to get to the bottom of things.
On Sunday, Mr. Shanahan said he did not plan to call for an inspector general investigation into the incident, which Navy officials have blamed on a group of lower-level Navy planning officers and a midlevel White House advance team.
In addition to Mr. McCain, the ship is named after 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.
Sailors aboard the McCain were not invited to hear Mr. Trump speak on a nearby amphibious assault ship, the Wasp, but sailors from other American warships at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan were welcomed aboard.
Even though Mr. Shanahan has denied knowing about the White House directive, questions about why the Navy initially acquiesced to it are likely to dog him when he goes before the Senate for his confirmation hearing in the coming weeks.