In an unorthodox move, President Trump, days before he formally assumed office, allowed Boeing chief executive Dennis A. Muilenburg to listen in on a call with the manager of a key Pentagon fighter jet program as the then-president-elect weighed the government’s options for lowering the costs of Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, program manager for the F-35, provided details about the call at a briefing before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday morning, taking questions from congressional staff members just hours after Bloomberg reported the episode.
Boeing and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin declined to comment. But others characterized the call to Bogdan as an inappropriate subversion of the military’s ability to determine its own equipment requirements.
“The president directly trying to influence the requirements process in the presence of a [defense company executive] is wildly inappropriate and has the worst optics one can imagine … we’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Richard Aboulafia, a military analyst with Aerospace market research firm Teal Group.
“This reeks of the sort of cronyism that can really damage the procurement system,” he said.
Trump first met Bogdan during a Dec. 21 meeting at the president’s Mar-a-Largo resort in Florida with close to a dozen senior military officials. The president-elect then called Bogdan twice in January to ask questions about the program.
In congressional testimony Bogdan said the second of two calls, on Jan. 17, included both Muilenburg and the soon-to-be-president. Bogdan said Trump asked for a comparison of the capabilities of the F-18 Super Hornet, which is made by Boeing, and the F-35C, which is made by Lockheed.
Bogdan emphasized that no procurement decisions were made on the call. He also said Trump’s questions were the “foundation of the tasks that came out from [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] two weeks ago,” presumably referring to a subsequent review of the program that directed officials to compare the two planes.
“There were no decisions made during those conversations, and 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 capabilities relative to the Super Hornet, and to gain more information about the presidential aircraft replacement program,” Bogdan told members of the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35C is a more expensive, less common variant of the F-35 that is designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers. Only two of the most recent lot of 90 F-35 jets are C models, both of which are to be sold to the U.S. Navy.
The F-18 Super Hornet, made by Boeing, also takes off from an aircraft carrier but has a different set of capabilities. Boeing’s plane is cheaper and has been in use since the 1990s.
Top Navy officials have said as recently as this week that they view the two planes as complementary, but that hasn’t stopped the two companies from competing for business elsewhere.
In November, Canadian officials dealt a blow to Lockheed’s international prospects when they said they might buy 18 F-18 Super Hornets while they conduct a review about which plane to focus on. Boeing has lobbied the government there to buy more Super Hornets.
As the Pentagon considered its own order for the United States, Trump rattled markets and confused analysts by suggesting on Twitter that the F-18 could replace the F-35. In a December 22 tweet the then-president-elect criticized the F-35 for being too expensive and asked Boeing to “price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet,” as an alternative to the F-35.
The Pentagon subsequently said the F-18 would be considered as an alternative to the F-35C, when Mattis directed Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work to initiate a review of the Air Force One and F-35 programs. That review has not yet concluded.
However, details of the $8.5 billion F-35 contract deal announced in early February suggest the military does not plan to abandon Lockheed’s plane in favor of Boeing’s. The newest lot of planes includes just two C models to be sold to the U.S. Navy, the same amount that had been included in the previous lot.
Industry analysts so far see few changes to the structure of the program as a result of the president’s involvement, but the Pentagon’s review of the program could still yield changes.
“There’s no evidence that the Muilenburg conversation resulted in a change to the F-35 production profile, but there is now a review mandated to do a defense comparison between the two planes,” said Loren Thompson, an industry expert with the nonprofit Lexington Institute, which receives funding from defense companies including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Thompson said the way Trump injected himself into the deliberations is perhaps a signal of his approach to dealmaking to come.
“President Trump has carried over into government the operating style of the Manhattan real estate market,” Thompson said. “What this episode shows is president Trump is a very direct person who is not going to let tradition get in the way of finding answers,” he said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.