Our Pledge To You

Columnists

The chummy Trump – Boeing relationship explained

President Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Washington. Trump said the U.S. is issuing an emergency order grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft "effective immediately," in the wake of the crash of an Ethiopian Airliner that killed 157 people. | AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Dennis Muilenburg, the chief executive of the Chicago-based Boeing Co., have a close relationship, starting after Trump was elected and he complained the price of a new Air Force One was too high, threatening to cancel the order.

Boeing makes the aircraft.

Muilenburg gave Trump the win he craved — a deal that turned out pretty good for Boeing in some ways.

After an initial hesitation, Trump on Wednesday ordered his administration to temporarily ground Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft following deadly crashes in Ethiopia on Sunday and in Indonesia last October. Trump took action after other nations grounded the MAX, abdicating the usual U.S. leadership role in aviation safety.

The grounding was, Trump told reporters at the White House, a “very tough decision.”

Muilenburg and Trump talked Tuesday.

That was the day Trump, the self-proclaimed aviation expert, tweeted that the problem was that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”

Muilenburg won a reprieve of only a day.

Muilenburg and Trump talked again on Wednesday, before Trump announced the MAX grounding in the wake of growing safety concerns.

“Boeing is an incredible company. They are working very, very hard right now and hopefully they’ll very quickly come up with an answer,” Trump told reporters.

Boeing is one of the nation’s largest defense and aerospace contractors and aircraft manufacturers.

With corporate headquarters in the Loop at 100 N. Riverside Plaza, Boeing has about 153,000 employees in the U.S., most at plants in other states. Boeing employs several hundred in Illinois.

Here’s some background to explain how Trump became fixated with Boeing and how Muilenburg nurtured the relationship.

•After Trump beefed about the Air Force One price on Dec. 21, 2016, during the Trump transition, Muilenburg met with his customer at Trump Tower in New York. The CEO seems to have sized up the president-elect and his needs.

After the meeting, Muilenburg told the press that he has a “lot of respect” for Trump. “He’s a good man. And he’s doing the right thing.”

Muilenburg gave Trump his “personal commitment on behalf of the Boeing Company” that the price for the two 747 aircraft — it’s called Air Force One when the president is aboard — will be less than Trump’s $4 billion estimate.

Trump bragged a lot about his great negotiation with Boeing, but it’s not like the company gave up much.

When the Defense Department announced the contract with the Air Force on July 17, 2018, the price tag was $3.9 billion for the two planes.

•Trump’s acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, has zero military experience but did work 30 years at Boeing, where he was a senior vice president.

On Wednesday, an ethics watchdog group, CREW, filed a complaint with the Defense Department inspector general alleging that Shanahan was boosting Boeing “products,” a violation of Pentagon Standards of Conduct.

•Former Trump United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is joining the Boeing board.

• In February 2017, Trump’s first post-inauguration trip was to visit one of Boeing’s South Carolina plants. Muilenburg introduced Trump at the event. On March 14, 2018, Trump toured Boeing’s St. Louis facility.

•Boeing runs one of the biggest lobbying operations in Washington, spending $15 million in 2018 and $16.7 million in 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

•Boeing donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural as it plays both sides of the influence street. The company donated $1 million to former President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

•Boeing maintains and nurtures relationships with power players through millions of dollars in donations to museums and civic institutions. Boeing confirmed that it donated $10 million to the Chicago-based Obama Foundation.