Debunk This by Matt Palumbo

In the three years since President Donald Trump declared his candidacy for President in 2015, his net worth (as estimated by Forbes Magazine) has declined by roughly a third, setting him back 138 spots on their list of billionaires. And in light of that reality, it’s a claim that Trump is monetizing the presidency that is dominating headlines this week.

An explosive expose from Natasha Bertrand and Bryan Bender in Politico has ignited a firestorm of claims of the president’s alleged self-dealing while in the White House. Their case is as follows:

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  • In early Spring, the Air National Guard went to Kuwait to deliver supplies, and stopped at Prestwick Airport along the way, and they stayed at Trump’s Turnberry resort 50 miles outside of Glasgow.
  • The Pentagon has spent $11 million on fuel at the Prestwick Airport since October 2017, and this would allegedly have been cheaper to purchase at a U.S. military base.
  • Trump’s Turnberry resort lost $4.5 million in 2017, but saw their revenue increase $3 million in 2018. It’s unclear why Bertrand and Bender think that misunderstanding the difference between revenue and profit helps their case. I suppose they didn’t think it would be as convincing if they reported that the Turnberry resort was still unprofitable – but narrowed their losses (though we don’t know what happened, because they’re not painting a full picture).
  • The House Oversight Committee has been investigating this since April, which really isn’t surprising given how often House Democrats call for impeachment.

As a follow-up to their report, the New York Times found that the number of stops by Air Force planes at Prestwick rose from 180 in 2017 to 257 in 2018 and 259 in 2019 (so far). They also tallied total expenses at Prestwick to be $17.2 million.

Trump responded on Twitter following the report that he played no role in the arrangements:

Trump does not have a direct financial interest in Prestwick airport, but did enter into a partnership with the airport to increase air traffic and tourism in Scotland in 2014 after acquiring a Scottish golf course. Part of the agreement did include adding Trump Turnberry to the airport’s list of hotels that they could send aircrews to, but this was for corporate clients before he was even a presidential candidate.

Rather than take Trump’s word for it – the Air Force themselves made it clear there were a number of reasons that Prestwick was being used as their airport of choice – and that they have been using it from 2015. The Air Force landed at Prestwick 95 times in 2015. In case anyone needs a reminder, the president in 2015 was Barack Obama.

Air Force mobility aircraft, primarily C-17s, have increasingly leveraged Prestwick as a stopover location between 2015-2019 due to several key factors. Prestwick’s 24-hour-a-day operations make it a more viable option for aircraft traveling to and from the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility compared to other military stopover locations that have imposed increasingly restrictive operating hours. Additionally, Air Mobility Command [AMC] issued a flight directive to mobility crews in June 2017 designed to increase efficiencies by standardizing routing locations, with Prestwick being among the top five locations recommended for reasons such as more favorable weather than nearby Shannon Airport, and less aircraft parking congestion than locations on the European continent that typically support AMC’s high priority airlift missions. By considering factors like these to save costs and increase operational efficiencies, Air Operations Center contingency planners have increasingly turned to Prestwick to develop route plans for lower priority contingency needs such as training, deploy/redeploy and Guard airlift missions.

They also said that Prestwick “has a large parking area, is open 24/7/365, and has been contracted by DoD for fuel at standardized prices.” So much for the claim that Prestwick had more expensive fuel than could be purchased elsewhere.

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That explains why Prestwick is being used more frequently – but what about the alleged self-dealing by having military personnel reside at Turnberry? The impression we’re given from Politico is that Trump ordered the Air Force to stop at Prestwick to then use his hotel, but former Air Guard pilot and Air Force veteran Rep. Adam Kinzinger (a Republican that didn’t vote for Trump) explained that this simply wouldn’t be possible:

As a pilot in the Air Guard and veteran of the United States Air Force, I am quite familiar with Department of Defense travel guidelines, so let me set this record straight.

When aircrews need to stay overnight somewhere, the location is generally based on mission requirements and government fuel contract availability. In many cases, that location comes down from Scott Air Force Base in a planning cell called the Tactical Air Control Center.

If a crew is given the option of picking an overnight location, there are strict guidelines as to where that location can be, like taking into account fuel availability and crew rest times among a host of other variables. This also sheds light on why an entire cell of the military is dedicated to planning such logistics.

Aircrew members are given a “per diem” for expenses and quite honestly, they have the right to pick any location and food choices that will honor their allocated amount.

Many questions go into making the decision on where to stay during a mission and many times these decisions are made by the aircrew or planning cell based on availability, and it is absolutely their right to do so.

It’s a choice, and it’s that of our service members to make – not the firing squads on Twitter. And this choice is in the regulation written by our Department of Defense.

So unless Bertrand and Bender can prove that Trump played any direct role in this, they don’t have a story. Until then, they’ve left me struck trying to prove a negative.