Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom

President Trump has hosted at least 22 lawmakers on Air Force One, using one of the world’s most exclusive settings to build relationships and push his legislative agenda.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) flew to Miami in June with the 45th president to announce major changes to U.S. policy on Cuba. 

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“The president was exceedingly just open and … casual, warm and nice,” said Diaz-Balart.

Diaz-Balart, who traveled on Air Force One with President George W. Bush but “never got invited” by President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP rep: North Korea wants Iran-type nuclear deal Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight Iran's president warns US will pay 'high cost' if Trump ditches nuclear deal MORE, said the flight provided easy access to the president and his advisers.

“They can’t go anywhere. They can’t run away from you,” he told The Hill. “You can get a lot of work done.”

After the election, Trump suggested he might not use Air Force One, calling it a “step down in every way” from his own private jet. He railed against the price of the plane and floated canceling future orders.

But for a president who sees himself as the nation’s dealmaker in chief, Air Force One gives him a unique perk and a chance to schmooze with lawmakers. Trump has since praised America’s most famous plane, calling it “great,” and said after talks with contractor Boeing that he had found ways to cut costs.

Trump has invited 21 Republicans aboard the presidential plane and one Democrat, Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampJustice Dept investigating Equifax stock sales: report Dem senator: Trump 'very serious' about infrastructure Trump steps up courtship of Dems MORE (N.D.), who flew with him Wednesday to an event in North Dakota, where he pitched tax reform.

Another Democrat, Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsRaising awareness about maternal health worldwide on National Bump Day Senate plans hearing for bills to protect Mueller Entering a new era of African investment MORE (Del.), traveled with Trump on Marine One in February to Dover Air Force Base to honor the first service member killed abroad on Trump’s watch.

It’s been a wide mix of 14 House lawmakers and eight senators on Air Force One.

Four lawmakers are from Trump’s home state of New York: Republican Reps. Peter King, Chris Collins, Dan Donovan and Lee Zeldin. Florida has also had five GOP lawmakers invited aboard: Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Brian Mast, Dennis Ross and Diaz-Balart and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration MORE.

The mix includes both centrists like Rubio, King and Curbelo as well as conservative lawmakers like Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea GOP state lawmakers meet to plan possible constitutional convention MORE (R-Texas). 

During the House debate on ObamaCare repeal, Trump brought a number of Republican lawmakers on board and lobbied them to back the repeal bill.

Mast, a Florida freshman, flew on Air Force One to his home district near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida in March.

Mast was undecided on the repeal bill before the flight and shared his concerns with Trump and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus. Mast later voted in favor of the bill.

That same week, Trump flew to Tennessee to visit President Andrew Jackson’s historic home, The Hermitage, and to hold a rally in Nashville. He was joined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Corker pressed as reelection challenges mount MORE (R-Tenn.), who hasn’t shied away from criticizing the president.

Corker later tweeted a photo of himself, Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoBiden rejects universal basic income idea popular in Silicon Valley Trump transportation chief to join Biden for jobs event Dems ask feds to look into airfare price gouging amid Irma threat MORE in front of the Air Force One logo.

Trump gave DesJarlais and fellow Tennessee Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnCorker pressed as reelection challenges mount GOP braces for Bannon primary attacks Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom MORE (R) a ride back to Washington after the rally. Before the flight, Blackburn was publicly undecided and DesJarlais was leaning no on the House GOP’s ObamaCare replacement bill.

DesJarlais told Politico he spoke to Trump “pretty extensively” about health care, and both lawmakers later voted for the measure.

Trump also pressed Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) during a flight to Kentucky for his vote on ObamaCare repeal. And on the trip back, Comer said ,Trump sat for dinner with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Health Care: New GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Ky.), dining on lasagna and discussing their legislative goals.

Trump is not unique in using Air Force One to get to know legislators.

“Certainly he’s learning that some of the perks and amenities of the presidency, including Air Force One, are very valuable to presidents in lobbying to members of Congress and impressing people,” said Kenneth Walsh, a longtime White House reporter and author of “Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes.” “He does understand that.”

Trump has his own entrance near the front of the plane and a private office with its own communications equipment. Behind his desk is a window with the president’s personal seal. Some changes mark the new president: Televisions that were usually tuned to ESPN during the Obama administration now air Fox News or Fox Business Network.

Trump on occasion has also turned up in the press cabin to chat with reporters. In July, on a flight to Paris, Trump took questions on the record for an hour. During another Q&A, a photo of him in the press cabin next to a television airing a “Star Wars” movie went viral.

Trump often takes a carrot-and-stick approach as well when inviting lawmakers aboard. When the Senate was weighing ObamaCare repeal, Trump reportedly offered Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Moore CapitoOvernight Energy: House moves to block methane rule | EPA delays toxic water standard | Pick for FEMA No. 2 withdraws nomination Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom Poll: West Virginians approve of Dem senator more than Trump MORE (R-W.Va.) an invitation to travel with him to the Boy Scout Jamboree in her home state — but only if she voted for the repeal bill.

Capito eventually voted for the GOP’s pared-down repeal measure, but she declined the ride at the time.

 

And the perks rarely cross party lines. When Trump traveled to Newport News, Va., to commission the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, he brought along GOP Reps. Rob WittmanRob WittmanNavy official: Budget, readiness issues led to ship collisions Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom 355-ship Navy not a must under Trump's secretary nominee MORE (Va.) and Scott Taylor (Va.). But Democratic Rep. Bobby ScottBobby ScottDems call on DeVos to work with CFPB to protect student borrowers Dems offer alternative to Trump administration's child care proposal Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom MORE (Va.), who represents the district, wasn’t invited.

When Trump flew to Missouri for an event, he was joined by Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTop Senate Dem: We're going forward with understanding we can work with White House on DACA Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom MORE (R) but didn’t invite fellow Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP sees fresh opening with Dems’ single payer embrace Senators blast internet subsidy program It is time to make domestic terrorism a federal crime MORE (D). At the event, Trump urged attendees to “vote her out” in 2018 if she didn’t back tax reform.

Heitkamp became the first Democrat to join Trump on Air Force One Wednesday. The centrist, who is up for reelection next year, said she doesn’t agree with all of his policies but is willing to work on tax reform. Also on the flight were Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenAir Force One is Trump’s new boardroom Overnight Finance: Trump strikes debt, spending deal with Dems | Deal shocks GOP | Fed’s No. 2 to resign | Trump keeps tax squeeze on red state Dems | House aims to pass budget next week Trump praises Dem senator during tax speech MORE (R-N.D.).

Walsh said Trump on Air Force One was “an extension of his salesman, dealmaker persona.”

“It’s probably one of the best places that presidents can make deals,” Walsh said. “Because, as I say, they have all the advantages.”

Diaz-Balart and Rubio had long pressed Trump to roll back some of Obama’s Cuba policies. And they took a victory lap by accompanying Trump to Miami in June when he announced tighter restrictions on travel and business with Cuba.

Rubio, one of Trump’s toughest rivals in the Republican presidential primary, had been on Air Force One before, flying to Florida in March for an event on school choice.

“It works both ways,” said Walsh. “It’s such a high-visibility moment for members of Congress.”

The four New York Republicans were also aboard for one of the more momentous flights of Trump’s presidency, when Priebus was removed as chief of staff.

Trump flew to Long Island to discuss efforts to crack down on the MS-13 gang, joined by King, Donovan, Zeldin and Collins.

Priebus was on board, as well as then-communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who had earlier accused the former Republican National Committee chairman of leaking White House conversations. The flight came a day after Scaramucci’s profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza went viral.

The lawmakers said the Air Force One televisions were running Scaramucci’s quotes about Priebus.

“It was kind of awkward in the cabin, and everyone was trying to ignore the television and not acknowledging what was being broadcast,” Donovan told The Hill.

“That was pretty tense. I mean, they didn’t say a word to each other,” King said.

The lawmakers didn’t realize that Priebus was fired until their arrival back in Washington.

After they landed, King said Trump asked Donovan his thoughts on then-Homeland Security Secretary John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

“He’s a good guy,” Donovan told the president.

“I just made him my chief of staff,” Trump said.

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Members who have flown on Air Force One with Trump: 

Feb 6
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) — To Washington

March 2
Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) — To Newport News for speech on defense budget

March 15
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — To attend rally in Tennessee
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) — Flew back to Washington from rally

March 17
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) — To Florida

March 20
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) — To and from Louisville for rally
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — Flew to Washington from Louisville rally

April 28
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) — Flew to NRA convention in Atlanta

June 16
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart — To Miami for event on Cuba policy

 

July 28
Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) — To Long Island for event on MS-13

 

Aug. 30
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — To Springfield, Mo., for tax reform event

Sept. 6
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) — To North Dakota for tax reform event

Scott Wong contributed.