Trump denies Air Force One threat is retaliation for Boeing CEO’s comments

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to keep the existing Air Force One fleet flying into next decade unless Boeing reduces costs on replacement jets, and denied his broadside came after reading critical comments from the company’s CEO.

Trump set off a firestorm Tuesday morning when he — seemingly out of nowhere — tweeted that the cost of the replacement program would hit $4 billion. The social media post ended with two ominous words for Boeing: “Cancel order!”

He later made a rare appearance in the lobby of Trump Tower to tell reporters “the plane is totally out of control,” adding that he thinks “Boeing is doing a little bit of a number — we want Boeing to make a lot of money, but not that much money.”

Just over 24 hours later, Trump was asked about his criticism on NBC’s “Today Show” program. The president-elect denied seeing a Chicago Tribune article posted Tuesday morning that contained comments from Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg about the importance of free trade to his company’s overall business — and noted it sells one of every three 737 airliners to China.

During the campaign — and since, including a U.S. foreign policy protocol-breaking phone call with Taiwan’s president — Trump used an anti-trade and tough-on-China populist position to help win over working-class Democrats in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.

But Muilenburg, in comments that the newspaper reported were from the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association last week, argued Washington cannot afford to sit on the sidelines of global trade talks.

“If we do not lead when it comes to writing these rules, our competitors will write them for us,” he said.

The Tribune article was posted at online at 7:30 a.m. Trump’s tweet went out at 8:52 a.m, as CNN’s Jake Tapper pointed out.

On Wednesday the president-elect denied, when pressed by “Today” co-host Matt Lauer, that his attack on the Air Force One replacement program was retaliation for Muilenburg’s pro-trade and friendly-with-China stances.

But he did escalate his growing war with the Chicago-based defense and aerospace giant when he threatened again to cancel the new program and merely keep the 25-year-old existing Air Force jets in service unless Boeing reduces costs.

But here’s the catch: The new presidential planes are still in development, and not set to being in service until 2024. The youngest of the two current jets would have flown for 33 years at that point.

When the Pentagon announced the deal in early 2015, the Air Force set the budget for the new planes at $1.65 billion, but current estimates have varied.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, on Tuesday said the president-elect’s cost estimate was not that far off. That’s because the Pentagon’s last budget plan included $2.9 billion for research and development, but does not yet show the cost of actually buying the two new jets at a cost of more than $1 billion, Harrison tweeted.

When asked for comment, Boeing at first seemed caught off guard. In a later Tuesday statement, the company claimed its existing contract for the program is worth $170 million.

“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,” Boeing said in a statement.

In other news, Trump on “Today” said he is “fairly close” to selecting a secretary of state nominee. “I think next week will be the time I announce it,” adding that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains in the running. So, too, does ExxonMobile Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, he said.

Meantime, he said his transition team could make other Cabinet announcements on Wednesday or Thursday.

Additionally, a Trump aide on a Tuesday conference call with reporters said the president-elect sold all of his stocks in June. Trump a day later said he did so not to make money but because he sensed he would win the presidency.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be owning stocks when I’m making decisions for this country,” Trump said.

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