The aerospace giant has worked hard to build a good relationship with the president. Will it be enough to protect it in unprecedented times?
Donald Trump’s attraction to Boeing goes back to at least the 1980s, when he purchased a 727 from a distressed Texas company for $8 million.
“It was a little more plane than I needed,” he says in his ghost-written book The Art of the Deal, “but I find it hard to resist a good deal when the opportunity presents itself.” The 727, built in 1968, was cheaper than a new Gulfstream.
By the time of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had moved up to an aging but luxuriously appointed 757 with his name painted prominently on the sides. “Trump Force One,” according to the New York Times, was good for his brand, even if it was expensive to operate and couldn’t land in many small-town airports.
Boeing did not return the affection. Although its contributions were almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, executives made no secret of their distaste for Trump’s trade proposals. (A significant number of Machinists apparently did vote for Trump).
Then Trump won, threatened to kill a new Air Force One order, and Chicago got the message. Boeing has been working harmoniously with him since before the election.
When President Trump earlier this month withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear accord, dooming a potential $9.5 billion commercial airplane sale to Tehran, Boeing was at peace. The company said it “will consult with the U.S. Government on next steps. As we have throughout this process, we’ll continue to follow the U.S. Government’s lead.”
This art of the deal looks good for jobs in the Puget Sound region, where the order books are full, saving Air Force One is important and the Iran sale always was insecure. But those who get close to this president usually come off worse for it.
Maybe Boeing, a large corporation, will be an exception. That’s as opposed to individuals such as once-distinguished soldier-scholar H.R. McMaster or Rex Tillerson, who learned he was out as Secretary of State via a presidential tweet.
The relationship could be very profitable. But Trump is an enormous risk, too. Let’s check both angles.
Trump was the first businessman with no prior government experience to be a major party nominee. Yet he garnered little support among his peers. Warren Buffett famously said a monkey could have done a better job running a public company. Charles Koch assessed Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a choice between cancer and a heart attack.
Instead, his few prominent business backers included Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal; corporate raider Carl Icahn; venture capitalist Robert Mercer; New York Jets owner Woody Johnson; casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and investment banker Steven Mnuchin, who became Treasury Secretary.
No CEOs of Fortune 100 companies supported the Republican candidate.
But as president-elect, a time when the winner is typically silent, when “America has only one president at a time,” Trump was an activist with corporate America. First came the agreement he brokered to keep jobs at a Carrier air conditioner factory in Indiana (he didn’t preserve as many jobs as were hyped).
In December 2016, Trump surprised Boeing by tweeting, “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”
Boeing got the message. The company donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration.
Days before he took office, Trump allowed Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to listen in on a call to a top Air Force general criticizing the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — made by Boeing’s rival Lockheed Martin.
By April, the new president abandoned his pledge to abolish the Export-Import Bank, which is important to Boeing.
Also, Trump and Boeing finally reached a deal on two new planes for Air Force One, with questionable cost savings.
Teal Group aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia told the Washington Post, “Boeing learned first, of all the defense contractors, that you have to flatter Trump, you have to give him credit for any number of things, no matter (how) fictitious.”
To be fair, many companies and industries spent big on Trump’s inauguration. Microsoft was one. With Republicans in total power in D.C., they wanted tax cuts and other goodies (and leverage on issues where they disagreed, such as net neutrality).
But Boeing sits at an unusual, even unique, nexus of the American economy.
It is the largest exporter, a big manufacturing employer, a major defense contractor and holder of an effective duopoly (with Airbus) in commercial airliners. A number of major American companies can lay claim to some of these distinctions, but none to all of them.
So while some critics might see Muilenburg as going over the top with Trump, his actions could be defended as protecting the company during an unprecedented presidency.
But Boeing is a worldwide company in the era of “America First.” The tension is acute with Trump’s confrontational stance toward China, Boeing’s biggest export customer and source of enormous future orders. Boeing is also trying to position itself there for the inevitable emergence of a China-grown competitor.
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Maybe the worst won’t happen. Trump this week suddenly reversed himself on sanctions on ZTE Corp. The Chinese company had been banned from buying critical components from American companies, after it was found to be illicitly selling products to Iran and North Korea.
“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies,” he tweeted. “This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
If this move signals backing down from a potential trade war, Boeing would be a huge beneficiary.
Yet this norm-breaking, scandal-ridden president is always one tweet away from yet another policy reversal. And out on the tightrope is Boeing and its American jobs.