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. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“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 ObamaObama: Are we a nation that rips families apart? Another chance to seek the return of fiscal sanity to the halls of Congress Colombia’s new leader has a tough road ahead, and Obama holdovers aren't helping 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 HeitkampElection Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral Poll: GOP challenger narrowly leads Heitkamp in North Dakota Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril MORE (N.D.), who flew with him Wednesday to an event in North Dakota, where he pitched tax reform.

Another Democrat, Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill All the times Horowitz contradicted Wray — but nobody seemed to notice Hillicon Valley: Trump hits China with massive tech tariffs | Facebook meets with GOP leaders over bias allegations | Judge sends Manafort to jail ahead of trial | AT&T completes Time Warner purchase 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 RubioSenate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump Hillicon Valley: New FTC chief eyes shake up of tech regulation | Lawmakers target Google, Huawei partnership | Microsoft employees voice anger over ICE contract Lawmakers urge Google to drop partnership with Chinese phone maker Huawei 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 moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump Senate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill Hollywood goes low when it takes on Trump 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 CorkerOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs GOP senator demands details on 'damaging' tariffs 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 ChaoMitch McConnell — the Republican Senate's invaluable engine The lifesaving difference between connected cars vs. self-driving cars Transportation secretary defends brother-in-law’s nomination to lead pension agency MORE in front of the Air Force One logo.

Trump gave DesJarlais and fellow Tennessee Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnWhat the net neutrality repeal means Dem Senate super PAC reserves million in fall TV ads Scalise throws support behind Black, Blackburn ahead of Tennessee primary 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 McConnellFlake threatens to limit Trump court nominees: report Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending 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 Wellons Moore CapitoSenate DHS bill includes .6 billion for ‘fencing’ on border Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril Trump presses for wall funding in DHS spending bill 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 WittmanRobert (Rob) Joseph WittmanOvernight Defense: New allegations against VA nominee | Pompeo vote set for Thursday | Work begins on defense policy bill | Measures push space corps, pay bump for troops House subpanel recommends buying three more ships than Navy requested Extending the range of the Air Force with the B-21 MORE (Va.) and Scott Taylor (Va.). But Democratic Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHouse Dems demand answers from HHS on DOJ's ObamaCare decision Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — DOJ move against ObamaCare sets off frenzy Dems blast DOJ for 'stunning attack on the rule of law' in ObamaCare case 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 BluntGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Ernst, Fischer to square off for leadership post Facebook gives 500 pages of answers to lawmakers' data privacy questions MORE (R) but didn’t invite fellow Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillSenate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral Hillicon Valley: Verizon, AT&T call off data partnerships after pressure | Tech speaks out against Trump family separation policy | T-Mobile, Sprint make case for B merger 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 HoevenGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border GOP senators want NAFTA deal from Trump by Labor Day Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA 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.

-------------

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.