Donald Trump flew to Iraq’s Al-Asad Air Base on Dec. 26 for a surprise visit to US soldiers in a combat zone for the first time during his two-year presidency.
The trip has come under increased scrutiny from military and ethics experts. There’s a protocol that US presidents are supposed to follow when they visit a war zone, or speak to active-duty military. It’s designed to keep them safe, and to prevent official visits from turning into political pandering.
Like much else in his presidency, Trump didn’t follow some of the rules to the letter.
The widespread use of social media is also raising questions over whether the presidential travel protocol is due for an update.
White House correspondents, including those who were on call that night as part of the rotating press pool that covers the president, had no advance notice of Trump’s Iraq trip, and didn’t even know where they were going when they boarded a plane late on Christmas night. Brian Bennett of Time Magazine explained what happened to other White House reporters in an email this afternoon (Dec. 27):
I didn’t know I’d be on the trip until Christmas morning when I received a cryptic logistical email [from] the White House with basic departure instructions and details for meeting at JBA [Joint Base Andrews] at 9:30 pm that night. The email said the dress code for the trip was casual, and I should prepare to stand outside in 40 to 50 degree weather. I did not know where the flight was going. I knew that Time magazine was up for the next WHCA [White House Correspondents Association] seat in the foreign travel pool rotation, and I had suspected that the President may want to visit troops over the holidays, so I had prepared myself mentally for a last minute trip…
The instructions directed me to a gate I had not been to before at JBA. I used a car service to get to JBA, and the driver and I had some difficulty finding the gate. When we found it, a guard checked my ID and we were told to follow a sedan to a parking lot. It was very dark by then, and cold out. The parking lot was filling up and lit by the headlights of idling cars and a few overhead street lamps. Some other members of the pool had already arrived. At this point, most of us still didn’t know what the destination was. I certainly didn’t. We were told to hand over our electronic devices and that we would get them back on the flight. (We did get them back, many hours into the flight.)…
Hours later, as we approached the destination, Sarah Sanders came to the press cabin to tell us we were landing at Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq and [to] tell us what to expect. The destination and information about the trip was to be embargoed until the President had finished speaking to troops during his last event before getting back on Air Force One.
That’s how the system is supposed to work, explains George Condon, a WHCA member and veteran correspondent for the National Journal. Reporters in the White House pool take turns covering Trump’s domestic and foreign trips, which means that news organizations share the cost of the coverage. (Reporters pay to fly on Air Force One or on accompanying charter flights, and for their own lodging, wifi and other travel expenses).
When the president flies into places where his security could be in danger, reporters have historically been banned from writing anything that would disclose his location until he is long gone.
When Franklin Roosevelt travelled during the Second World War, he would often only take reporters from the wires, an early version of the pool system, Condon said. Those reporters weren’t allowed to write from where Roosevelt was, he added, to protect his safety, like during his 1942 cross-country “secret” trip to personally check up on war preparations.
“When a president is flying into a country where folks have stinger missiles, no one should question the need for complete secrecy on the travel plans and arrival times,” Condon said.
After a flurry of tweeting the weekend before Christmas, the president’s account suddenly went quiet after a “MERRY CHRISTMAS” message just after 6pm on Dec. 25. The press office wasn’t answering calls; the “Daily Guidance” notice that tells reporters about the president’s schedule was already suspended due to the government shutdown that started on Dec. 21.
And then Alan Meloy, a self-described amateur photographer and plane enthusiast spotted an unusual plane over his kitchen window in Sheffield, England. “I could see a trail coming towards me… and then I looked through the viewfinder and thought this is worth photographing, it’s not just a normal airliner,” he told CNN. Meloy recognized it as one of the specially-modified Boeing planes that fly as Air Force one, and posted a photo of it in flight.
Another British plane enthusiast picked it up, adding more flight information and direct speculation that it was Trump:
Meanwhile, the pool reporter stationed at the White House, Shirish Date of the Huffington Post, emailed this early on the afternoon of Dec. 26 in response to questions from other reporters:
The White House has not issued any daily guidance for today, but the press office did issue a lunch lid until 1 p.m. For those interested: No, as of five minutes ago, there was no Marine posted outside the West Wing.
A Marine stands guard outside the West Wing when the president is in residence.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary, confirmed the growing online speculation on Twitter at 2:18 pm, EST, on Dec. 26 with a photo of the president and First Lady in Iraq.
According to the press pool reports, Air Force One didn’t depart Iraq until 10:53 pm local time, or 2:53 pm EST, so the president and First Lady were still on the ground for another 35 minutes after Sanders tweeted.
Department of Defense rules state that “active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.” They are allowed to express their political opinions, and attend political events, when they are “not in uniform.”
Soldiers in the Iraq base and at a second stop at a military base in Germany, however, were pictured clutching “Make America Great Again” hats and even holding up pro-Trump banners, unusually political activities for active-duty soldiers. A US Air Forces Europe spokesman said the hats the soldiers in Germany held were “personal items” that they wanted the president to sign, not political symbols.
While in Iraq, the president gave a politically tinged speech that reminded some of a campaign rally.
The politicization of the event raised questions from some former White House ethics experts about whether Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, and not US taxpayers, should be footing the bill.
In a video that Trump tweeted after Air Force One left Iraq, he and the First Lady are shown surrounded by soldiers taking photos with their phones. They greeted the couple with applause, and responded warmly to his speech.
Among the soldiers were Navy Seals, however, and military veterans said the president should have blurred their faces, Newsweek reports. ”The real names, faces, and identities, of personnel involved in special operations or activities, are usually a closely held secret in a combat zone,” Malcolm Nance, a former US Navy intelligence specialist, told the magazine.
During his Iraq speech, Trump took credit for the troops there getting a raise. “You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years,” Trump said. “More than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one.”
Military pay has “risen every year for three decades,” notes Military.com in an article fact-checking Trump’s remarks.
The trip also did little to improve Trump’s once-promising relationship with Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, or with the other governing coalitions in the country where the US has had a military presence for years. Trump and the prime minister only spoke by phone, after a disagreement over where to meet, Al Jazeera reports.
And an opposition political party called Trump’s trip a “flagrant and clear violation of diplomatic norms and shows his disdain and hostility in his dealings with the Iraqi government.”