Why Trump Wants to Ground the Next Air Force One

The president-elect borrows an idea from his predecessor, using his bully pulpit to take on Boeing and a costly new set of wings.

Susan Walsh / AP

One of the sacrifices Donald Trump will have to make upon taking the oath of office is that the famous creature-of-comfort will have to give up his own gold-plated airplane for a bigger, far costlier one: Air Force One.

But Trump wants the public to know that he’s not particularly happy about it. In fact, he wants to scrap plans to upgrade the presidential fleet entirely, as a money-saving move. “Cancel order!” decreed the president-elect on Tuesday morning.

Trump elaborated on his criticism in a brief exchange with reporters at Trump Tower: “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.”

As with many assertions by the president-elect, Trump’s facts are a little muddled. For one, he obviously has no authority to cancel a government contract until he takes office on January 20. And it’s not clear where he is getting the $4 billion figure from. The Pentagon’s current budget for the next fleet of Air Force Ones is $2.7 billion, according to the military, and the replacement program is still in its early design stage. The Air Force has only selected a model for the project—a Boeing 747-8. It hasn’t actually ordered any planes yet.

“We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of this complex military aircraft that serves the unique requirements of the president of the United States,” Boeing said in a statement responding to Trump’s tweet. “We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the president at the best value for the American taxpayer.”

In a separate statement, the Air Force said it was “still conducting risk reduction activities with Boeing to inform the engineering and manufacturing development contract negotiations that will define the capabilities and cost.” The department said that while the current budget was $2.7 billion, “we expect this number to change as the program matures with the completion of the risk reduction activities.”

The one thing Trump did get right is that the next generation Air Force One will be built “for future presidents.” The planes won’t be ready until the 2020s, so Trump would have to win reelection to fly in them.

What, then, was Trump’s seemingly out-of-the-blue tweet really about? As Trump spokesman Jason Miller acknowledged in a press conference call later Tuesday morning, this was the president-elect sending a political signal more than anything else. The real-estate tycoon may have notoriously expensive tastes—gold trim everywhere, luxury resorts, his own 757 (a Boeing, of course)—but he will be a careful steward of the public’s tax dollars, and he is already looking for places to save. “I think this really speaks to the president-elect’s focus on keeping costs down across the board with regard to government spending,” Miller said. “People are really frustrated with some of the big price tags that are coming out for programs even in addition to this one, so we’re going to be looking for ways to keep costs down.” As for whether the $4 billion figure was accurate, Miller said only that “it’s a pretty big number.” Miller also said that Trump would wait until after Inauguration Day to release the details of his proposal.

It would not be unprecedented for a new president to scrap a major defense contract over cost concerns soon after taking office. Trump need only look to President Obama for guidance. In May 2009, the Obama administration cancelled a contract that the Bush administration had signed with Lockheed Martin to build a new fleet for Marine One, the presidential helicopter. The price had ballooned to $13 billion.

Then as now, the new president—along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates—wanted to send a message that he was serious about tackling wasteful spending at a time when the Obama administration was implementing an $800 billion economic stimulus package. Trump also wants Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that, he has said, could cost as much as $1 trillion.

Coincidentally or not, his tweet on Tuesday morning came hours after The Washington Post published a lengthy investigation reporting that the Pentagon had buried an internal study exposing upwards of $125 billion in administrative waste. It also followed an article in the Chicago Tribune in which Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg criticized Trump’s position on trade.

There are currently two planes that serve as Air Force One, which are customized Boeing 747-200Bs with the military designation VC-25A. Air Force One is the call sign used whenever the president is onboard. Both aircraft are more than 25 years old, which happens to be the same age as the Boeing 757 that Trump owns, according to Business Insider. And there are plenty of reasons why the costs for customizing the president’s planes run so high. They need to have, in the vernacular of the military, “global, enduring, survivable command and control capability”—an airborne White House, in other words.

Trump has made it a priority to rebuild what he calls on his campaign website “our depleted military.” But he has taken aim at Pentagon procurements before, complaining repeatedly about the Defense Department’s $400 billion F-35 program to build a new generation of fighter jets. He’s also been a critic of Boeing on Twitter, though he bragged in 2013 that he bought stock in the company after it suffered a drop. (Miller told reporters that Trump had sold all of his stocks, including Boeing, this past June.)

Both before and after the election, Trump has shown little hesitancy to publicly brow-beat individual companies, which seems to be a strong indication of how he’ll use the bully pulpit of the presidency. But whether his concerns over the cost of Air Force One were tweeted out of personal pique or political tactics, the effect is largely the same as when Trump triumphantly announced a deal that his transition team and the state of Indiana had struck with Carrier.

Where the Carrier agreement was a discreet, easy-to-digest example of how Trump plans to look after the American worker in the White House, criticizing or even canceling an expensive upgrade of the iconic presidential fleet suggests his concern for the well-being of the American taxpayer. And it carries the added hint of modesty for a president-elect whose image is decidedly immodest, even if Trump himself would not have directly benefitted from the sleek new planes. The details matter little. So what if the Carrier saved only 730 union jobs, not the 1,100 that Trump first claimed? And so what if Trump seemed to conjure his $4 billion cost-estimate for Boeing’s Air Force One out of thin air? Trump will be a president who’s on your side, he wants desperately for you to know, and these bite-size announcements are but a taste of what’s to come.