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 ObamaIt's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Assange hit with 17 new charges, including Espionage Act violations Progressive commentator says Obama was delusional thinking he could work with Republicans 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 HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes 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 CoonsOil companies join blitz for carbon tax Mnuchin says carbon capture tax credit guidance will be out soon Mnuchin signals administration won't comply with subpoena for Trump tax returns 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 RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package 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 CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan 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 CorkerJeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump Corker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' 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 ChaoTrump administration cancels 9M for high-speed rail in California US halts flights to Venezuela Melania Trump expands mission of 'Be Best' on its one-year anniversary MORE in front of the Air Force One logo.

Trump gave DesJarlais and fellow Tennessee Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnOn The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity 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 McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval 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 CapitoCongress, White House near deal on spending, debt limit GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Congressional Women's Softball team releases roster 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 WittmanWhy block citizenship to immigrants who defend America? Virginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Overnight Defense: House passes 5B defense spending bill | Pentagon moving forward on Trump military parade | Mattis vows 'ironclad' support for South Korea's defense MORE (Va.) and Scott Taylor (Va.). But Democratic Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDem lawmaker says 'adversity score' shows debate over 'usefulness' of SAT is 'not over' CBC member brushes off Biden's past opposition to school busing Dem lawmaker says U.S. has 'drifted backwards' on school integration 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 BluntHit singer Andy Grammer says 'unity' more important than any political party Top GOP senator: 'More harassment than oversight' in House Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group MORE (R) but didn’t invite fellow Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillCongress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world Big Dem names show little interest in Senate 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 HoevenSenators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data Overnight Energy: Bipartisan Senate group seeks more funding for carbon capture technology | Dems want documents on Interior pick's lobbying work | Officials push to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US Officials, automakers aim to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US: report 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.