F-35 General: Boeing Heard Nothing ‘Unreleasable’ in F-35 Call With Trump

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg at Trump Tower after discussing the Advanced F-18 Super Hornet, the F-35, and under-development Air Force One replacement. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg at Trump Tower after discussing the Advanced F-18 Super Hornet, the F-35, and under-development Air Force One replacement. Andrew Harnik/AP

When Donald Trump spoke to the Air Force general in charge of the F-35 program on Jan. 17, there was someone else listening in on the phone call about the Lockheed Martin jet: the CEO of Boeing, whose own strike fighter might just be poised to get some F-35 money.

On Thursday, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan acknowledged earlier reports that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was also on the call. Though Bogdan declined to comment on the appropriateness of Boeing’s participation, he said, “The things that I talked about in front of Mr. Muilenburg were clearly publicly releasable information and I understand the rules about talking about Lockheed Martin stuff in front of Mr. Muilenburg.”

Lockheed Martin had no comment on the phone calls.

A few weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted his dissatisfaction with the Joint Strike Fighter program: “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” A month later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis officially directed the Pentagon to do so.

Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016

Bogdan said the call’s other topics included Boeing’s in-development Air Force One replacement, and the company’s proposed Advanced F-18 Super Hornet that is either a competitor or complement to the F-35, depending on who you ask. What united all the topics, Bogdan said at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, was that Trump was “in learning mode” about all of them.  

“It’s important to understand that the discussions that we had were all pre-decisional,” Bogdan said. “It was my belief that President-elect Trump at the time was attempting to gain more information about the F-35 and its affordability, trying to gain more information about the F-35’s capabilities relative to the Super Hornet and to gain more information about the presidential aircraft replacement program."

Bogdan had previously discussed the F-35 with Trump as part of a larger briefing with other military leaders in Mar-a-Lago Dec. 21, and again by phone Jan. 9.

Since the last phone call, Bogdan said he’s sent information up the chain through the Secretary of Defense, and “would expect that would be the normal way of doing business” going forward.

But the three conversations between Bogdan and Trump weren’t the first time the soon-to-be commander-in-chief had directly involved himself in the F-35 program. In mid-December, Trump called it “out of control.”

The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016

After the Dec. 21 meeting with military officials and subsequent calls with Bogdan, Trump ordered Mattis to do a formal comparison between the F-35 and F-18.

“The questions that [Trump] asked and the answers that I gave were the foundation of the tasks that came out from Secretary Mattis two weeks ago, which are ongoing right now,” Bogdan said.

But even before that review was a week old, Trump reversed his position on the F-35, telling a group of small business leaders meeting at the White House in late January that “Lockheed is doing a very good job as of now.” He also claimed credit for ending “seven years of delays [and] tremendous cost overruns.”

It’s not clear whether that change of heart had more to do with the information Bogdan shared or with the decrease in the F-35’s price tag between the the ninth order negotiated in 2015 and the tenth order announced soon after Trump’s inauguration. The cost of the Air Force’s F-35A, for example, fell below $100 million per plane for the first time ever—though that price drop and similar decreases on the B- and C-variants were all in line with historical decreases.

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