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Usually, on Air Force One, we in the small traveling press pool at the back of the plane are sequestered from President Trump. But on the trip last week to Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, we had a hunch he’d come back to see us. And he did. Mr. Trump felt good about the rally the night before in Billings, and there was a lot in the news: the anonymous op-ed, Bob Woodward’s book, China tariffs. But he wanted his comments off the record. Fine. At the end, we asked the magic question: Can we put everything on the record? After some back and forth, he settled on, “Yeah, just be fair with me.” And so, we got what we wanted: the president, answering questions, on the record. But there’s more to flying on Air Force One than proximity to the president. Take the hearty, delicious meals, which always seem to involve cheese. There’s also the freedom to stay on one’s cellphone even after takeoff. Also, I must point out: We reporters are not flying Air Force One on the taxpayers’ dime. Our employers pay for the privilege. And thankfully, it is a privilege that Trump has continued.
Anticipation was high as we boarded Air Force One last Thursday for a two-day trip with President Trump to Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
The day before, The New York Times had published an anonymous op-ed by a “senior administration official” claiming a “resistance” to Trump policies from the inside. And the day before that, tidbits from Bob Woodward’s book “Fear” had come out, portraying a chaotic White House under an unstable boss.
What would Mr. Trump say to us, the reporters traveling with him – and hanging on his every word?
The president didn’t have to say anything. But chances were high, we felt, that he’d want to come back to the press cabin. Which he did – the next morning, right after takeoff from Billings, Mont. And he did not disappoint. Key quotes from our Q&A session, transmitted by us to our editors and the entire Washington press corps after we landed in Fargo, N.D., created instant headlines.
“Trump says Justice Department should investigate who wrote anonymous New York Times op-ed,” said the news alert on my phone.
I was about two feet away from Trump when he said that in response to a reporter’s question, and I had that “wow” feeling that comes from seeing news happen right in front of you. When you cover the White House, there’s nothing like up-close, off-camera interaction with the president.
But when I tell family and friends I just spent two days flying around the country on Air Force One, they aren’t just interested in Trump. They also want to know about the plane, the setting for many a historic event and Hollywood film. In fact, there’s more than one Air Force One. We flew in a big one, a Boeing 747, with first-class accoutrements – big seats, a basket of fruit and candy ever present, various toiletries and a big stack of terrycloth hand towels in the restroom.
Sequestered in the back of the plane, the 13 members of the traveling press “pool” – a rotating group of reporters, photographers, and a TV crew – are kept away from the president and accompanying staff and guests. But flying on Air Force One does have its privileges. Tray tables stowed away for takeoff? Not necessary. Seat belts never buckled? Not a problem. Electronic devices still on? Don’t worry about it.
We pool reporters love that we can stay on our phones well after liftoff, keeping connected with the outside world a few extra minutes. Though once the signal fades to black, we’re truly trapped in the presidential bubble. There’s no WiFi inside the press cabin.
Then there are the delicious meals, prepared in a galley behind the press cabin. They always seem to involve cheese, and are quite hearty, perhaps to keep the Secret Service agents happy. (This observation goes back way before Trump took office, so no judgment on him.) For dinner on Thursday, we were served steak tacos and tres leches cake, with real silverware, tiny glass salt and pepper shakers, and a cloth napkin wrapped in a paper ring featuring the presidential seal. The next evening, on our way back to Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, we got heaping plates of lasagne, salad, and tiramisu.
By now you may be wondering who pays for all this. After previous Air Force One trips, I’ve had readers call me out for flying with the president “on the taxpayers’ dime.” The reality, for all the press on board, is that our employers pay the bill – the cost of the flight, the meals, the ground transportation. It’s expensive, but doable (for us, two or three times a year).
It’s an honor and a privilege to serve in the pool. Our job is to serve as the eyes and ears of the entire White House press corps, and, by extension, the public. The reports that we file are directly transmitted to our colleagues, and not censored by the White House press office. And as much as Trump is known for busting norms, it must be noted that he has continued the practice of bringing representatives of the White House press corps with him on trips. There’s no law saying he has to do that.
True, Trump uses us as props at events – pointing to the back of the arena and calling us “fake news” or more recently, “fakers” (and even more seriously, “enemies of the people,” though that historically ominous slur usually comes by tweet). This treatment is not a joke, and we don’t smile or laugh. We just do our jobs.
But there are plenty of good reasons for the press to stay as close to Trump as possible. Getting to ask him questions tops the list. In all my years of flying Air Force One, I had never had a visit with the president. President Barack Obama rarely came back, but Trump – who is more of a schmoozer than his predecessor – does so regularly.
The night before, at our hotel in Billings, some of us badgered Trump aides to bring him back the next day – or better yet, bring us to the front of the plane, where he has an office and other comforts of home. A few pool reporters under Trump have had that privilege.
Sure enough, the next morning, soon after takeoff, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley appeared in our cabin and silently swept his hands upward: Rise up! We knew what that meant. I fumbled for my recorder and iPhone, and seconds later, there was Trump. “This will be off the record,” we were told. That means nothing can be quoted, either by name or more vaguely, such as “senior administration official.” Audio was allowed, but no video.
Trump was in good spirits from the rally the night before, and seemed to enjoy the back and forth with us – on China tariffs, the anonymous op-ed, the Woodward book, North Korea, Robert Mueller.
At one point, Trump temporarily changed the ground rules, suggesting an “off the record” comment could be quoted: “I say ‘off the record,’ but you can use it if you want,” he said of the decline in the Chinese stock market.
Then, as we wrapped up, he was asked the magic question. Can we put everything on the record? After some back and forth, he settled on, “Yeah, just be fair with me.” Then he turned to Mr. Gidley for affirmation. Here’s that part of the “gaggle”:
THE PRESIDENT: You okay with that, Hogan? Do I have that?
Q: It’s up to you, Mr. President. (Inaudible.)
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we said anything very tricky, Hogan. What do you think?
Q: You said great stuff.
THE PRESIDENT: Huh?
Q: About the country being great.
And so, we got what we wanted: the president, answering questions, on the record.
The rest of the day, fundraisers in Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., seemed anticlimactic. We also discovered Friday that a hashtag had emerged from the televised Billings rally: #PlaidShirtGuy, a high school student who stood behind Trump making facial expressions that went viral. Eventually, the young man, Tyler Linfesty, was removed from the rally.
But we in the press pen without telephoto lenses didn’t see that. Thus is life in the presidential bubble – the privileges are many, but the perspective can be narrow.
And what about the future of Air Force One? The current pair, dating to 1987, is being replaced with two new Boeing 747s – and a new look. Instead of the Kennedy-era blue and white color scheme, Trump has ordered red, white, and blue.
“It’s going to be the top of the line, the top in the world,’’ the president told CBS News in July.
But Trump won’t get to use them, at least as president. They won’t be ready until 2024.