In December 2016, then-President-elect Donald Trump sent word that, when it came to government spending, there was a new sheriff in town.
“Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion,” he tweeted. “Cancel order!”
With great fanfare, Trump opened talks with Boeing and as recently as June declared that he had forced Boeing to knock $1.6 billion off the price. He boasted about his negotiating triumph over and over.
Welp. The Pentagon just put out its first formal acquisition report on the presidential planes, and the new cost is .?.?. $5.2 billion, Air Force Magazine reports. That’s $4.7 billion for the jets themselves and $500 million for associated costs such as hangar construction. In response to my inquiry, an Air Force spokeswoman broke down the costs differently — $3.9 billion for Boeing and the rest for associated costs — and came up with a slightly higher figure for the new Air Force One: $5.3 billion.
Actually, it’s even worse. Though Trump in 2016 had claimed costs were $4 billion for the two-jet order, the Government Accountability Office had estimated the cost that year at only $3.2 billion. Apples-to-apples comparisons are tricky, largely because Trump tends to make up numbers, but by any measure, the price tag is up — bigly — from when Trump first complained about it.
The tale of Air Force One is a study of Trump’s presidency in miniature. He makes fantastical claims and forecasts that are implausible at the time but that can’t be proved wrong empirically because sufficient time hasn’t passed. As the Trump presidency wears on, however, time exposes more claims as fraudulent.
He claimed the economy would grow consistently at 4% and occasionally as high as 8%; after an initial boost because of tax cuts, it has settled back down to 2.1%.
His treasury secretary said in April that the United States and China were close to a trade deal. The two are now fighting a trade and currency war.
He proclaimed North Korea no longer a nuclear threat and said its main missile-launching site “is going to be destroyed very soon”; North Korea has resumed weapons testing.
He claimed he would turn around the coal and steel industries and deliver cheaper and better health care and Middle East peace progress; all deteriorated.
Trump gets a pass on much of the above, because of strong markets and continued job growth. But time appears to be catching up with this happy situation: Markets have wobbled recently, and the long expansion shows signs of fragility.
On the Air Force One contract, Trump complained in November 2015 to radio host and Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt: “They’re giving out a new, as you know, Air Force One, and that’s a $3 billion, with a ‘b’, $3 billion plane ... I guarantee you I could save hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”
By February 2017, he had a new set of numbers: “They were close to signing a $4.2 billion deal to have a new Air Force One. Can you believe this? I said no way,” he said. “I said I refuse to fly in a $4.2 billion airplane. I refuse. So I got Boeing, and it is actually — a lot of people don’t know — the Air Force One project is actually two planes ... but we’ve got that price down over $1 billion.”
In August 2018, he claimed even greater savings . “I had a price of $5.6 billion,” he said. “So we worked very long and very hard, and we have the same exact product for $1.6 billion less.”
Just over a year ago, the Pentagon said it awarded Boeing a $3.9 billion contract to build the two 747-8 presidential jets. That’s $100 million less than Trump originally claimed the Obama administration was set to pay — itself a dubious figure — but there was no sign of the $1.6 billion savings he boasted about. (The White House at this point claimed the original estimate, which Trump himself put at $4 billion, had always been over $5 billion.)
Now we’re at $5.3 billion for the jets and associated costs — and counting.
As the industry publication Defense One put it: “Air Force officials have always privately conceded that the program was going to cost more than the $3.9 billion figure touted by the White House last year. ... Now the projected costs are out in the open.”
Time has a way of doing that.
Dana Milbank @Milbank Copyright The Washington Post