How Donald Trump put himself at the center of the Boeing Max crisis

My way.
My way.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Donald Trump thrust himself into the center of the Boeing 737 Max crisis in the US, initiating multiple phone calls with the plane manufacturer and US officials responsible for its oversight as a decision was being made on whether to ground the planes, people briefed on the calls told Quartz.

Ultimately, he beat his own Federal Aviation Administration to the news that the US was grounding the 737 Max 8 and 9, surprising some officials and US industry executives, who traditionally would have been notified first of the fate of planes they have in the air. US regulators were among the last in the world to ban the Boeing models from service after the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, the second of a 737 Max 8 in five months.

“The FAA is preparing to make an announcement of new information and physical evidence we’ve received from the site,” of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Trump told White House reporters yesterday afternoon (March 13), at the start of what was scheduled to be a briefing on drug trafficking at the US border. “We’re going to be issuing an emergency order of prohibition to ground all flights of the 737 Max 8 and the 737 Max 9 and the planes associated with that line,” he said.

Making matters more confusing, he indicated that the decision wasn’t based on what investigators were learning and was his to make as president.

“We didn’t have to make this decision today. We could have delayed it,” he said. “We maybe didn’t have to make it at all. But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways

Just as he finished speaking, a carefully edited video of his remarks was tweeted from his account.

The FAA’s acting administrator Dan Elwell stressed later, in a press call, that the US about-face decision to ground the planes was “fact-based,” and came after “new satellite data available this morning,” that showed a clearer view of the plane’s flight path. The US plane-tracking company Aireon “refined the rough radar track, and in the refinement of that track it became clear to all partners that the track of Ethiopian Air was very close and behaved very similarly to” the Lion Air flight that crashed in Indonesia last October, he said.

Trump inserts himself

Trump had orchestrated a flurry of phone calls among the White House, the agency, and the company that started Monday (March 11), the day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, according to people briefed on the calls. The White House first reached out to Boeing about a call between Trump and CEO Dennis Muilenburg on Monday. The two didn’t speak until Tuesday (March 12), after Trump had tweeted about modern planes being “too complex to fly.”

Muilenburg reassured Trump that the 737 Max planes were safe, Boeing told reporters later, sparking concern that the defense contractor and key component of the all-important Dow Jones Industrial Average had outsized influence over the government’s decision.

Then Muilenburg and Trump spoke again yesterday (March 13), one of the several calls that day that Trump instigated. “There were a bunch of phone calls going on,” said one person familiar with the conversations. Boeing’s CEO was “on one with the president, the president was in contact with the FAA administrator and the secretary”—Elaine Chao, who leads the US Department of  Transportation, which oversees the FAA.

“The president expects daily interactions with business leaders on the news of the day,” the person added. Boeing is no exception, and the relationship is intensified by the fact that Trump considers himself an aviation expert, and has a natural interest in planes.

This president-centered model of decision making is not how the US government is designed to work, particularly when it comes to safety issues, aviation experts say. When the Boeing 787 was grounded for battery issues during Barack Obama’s presidency, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement.

During his announcement, Trump called Boeing a “a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal.” Expressing that sentiment surprised former safety officials. “It’s essential and always has been to separate the safety aspects of aviation that are part of the FAA from the trade promotion and economic development aspects,” John Pocari, a former Department of Transportation official, told Politico.

The FAA still asserts it “is the authority”

Trump’s announcement ahead of any official word from the FAA also sparked industry confusion. Normally, airlines affected by any grounding are notified beforehand. Yesterday, Southwest Airlines, one of the US’s largest operators of the aircraft in question, initially said in a statement on its website that it “aware of media reports” that the plane would be grounded and was “seeking guidance” from the FAA.

The Flight Safety Foundation, an aviation safety group, criticized the “globally haphazard approach to an important airworthiness issue” after Trump spoke, citing the need for “timely, harmonized decisions based on facts and evidence, not conjecture, politics, or media pressure.”

Asked what role the White House played in the decision during the conference call with reporters yesterday, Elwell took a very audible deep breath and paused before answering. “The FAA is the safety authority for emergency airworthiness directives or, in this case, an emergency order,” he said. “The FAA is the authority,” he repeated.

“I am in constant conversation with Secretary Chao, this was her number-one priority Sunday,” Elwell said. The FAA “made the decision,” he reiterated, but in “constant consultation” with Chao on “our data collection and our thinking regarding our decision.”

“At the end of the day,” he concluded, “it is a decision that has the full support of the secretary, the president, and the FAA.”

Trump’s long fascination with airlines

Trump briefly owned an airline in the early 1990s, the Trump Shuttle, which flew between New York, Washington, and Boston, featuring pearl necklace-wearing flight attendants and gold-colored fixtures in the lavatories. (He purchased the planes for $365 million, the airline hemorrhaged cash and he sold it at a steep loss.)

Even before he was elected, Trump had a lot to say about the US airline industry, tweeting his disapproval of a US Airlines/American Airlines merger in 2013, and suggesting that US airlines stop flying to Ebola-torn West Africa the same year.

Trump’s public relationship with Boeing dates back at least to the manufacturer’s last major plane-model issue, the 2013 grounding of 787 planes. Trump tweeted afterward that he had bought Boeing stock after it fell and encouraged followers to do the same.

But after he was elected, Trump objected to the price Boeing was charging for new Air Force One aircraft, tweeting that the costs were “out of control” and threatening to cancel the order. Muilenburg visited Trump at his private Mar-a-Lago club in south Florida during the post-election transition period to broker a $3.9-billion deal, which appears to have shaved just $100,000 off the cost. The White House announced that the new arrangement would save taxpayers more than $1.4 billion—without explaining how.

Trump visited a Boeing plant in South Carolina in his first trip outside of the beltway as president in early February 2017. He has had regular conversations with Muilenburg since, and on a recent visit to Vietnam, touted a deal to sell Boeing 737 Max planes there.

Read more of Quartz’s coverage of the Boeing 737 Max crisis.