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White House: Air Force One will not be used as a ‘prop’ at political rally

Donald Trump waves to the crowd as he boards his plane after a rally on March 1 in Columbus, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The White House said Thursday that President Trump does not plan to use Air Force One as a backdrop at his political rally in a hangar in Melbourne, Fla., on Saturday evening.

The president plans to travel to the rally in Air Force One, as he does for all trips, but an administration official said the plane would "not [be] used in the background as a prop."

During the campaign, Trump's most theatrical rallies were those held in airplane hangars. As his personal Boeing 757 approached the airport, the theme song from the 1997 movie "Air Force One" would play. "Trump Force One" would usually swoop past once, if not twice, before landing and taxiing to the hangar. The door would open, Trump would emerge, descend a staircase, bound onto the stage and give a campaign speech against the backdrop of his luxury liner.

"Trump Force One" was a key character in Trump's campaign for the White House

So when Trump tweeted this week that he would hold his first political rally as president in an airplane hangar, this question quickly surfaced: Will he do the same routine with Air Force One?

If he did, experts say, Trump would enter into a legal and ethical gray zone, as the president is not allowed to use government resources for political campaigns. The president is allowed to travel on Air Force One to campaign events — actually, he's required to do so and doesn't have the option of flying commercial. (The party or the campaign is expected to reimburse the government for part of the cost of the trip.) The iconic plane often appears on the campaign trail, such as when Hillary Clinton hitched a ride to a rally last summer in Charlotte with President Barack Obama and the two were photographed waving from the plane's doorway, standing next to a presidential seal.

Richard Painter — a professor of law at the University of Minnesota who was the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007 and is now vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — agreed with the White House's plan. Painter explained that the president has to travel in Air Force One and the plane has to land, an event that his supporters are allowed to witness. But the president should put some distance between his political speech and the taxpayer-funded Air Force One.

"They can do all of the theatrics, but when he gives the speech, the plane should be to the side," Painter said.

Trump family's elaborate lifestyle creates a logistical nightmare -- at taxpayer expense

Larry Noble, general counsel for the nonpartisan ethics watchdog the Campaign Legal Center and former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, said the placement of the plane falls into a "gray area." The bigger question, Noble said, is why the president is hosting a campaign rally instead of just giving a presidential speech, which comes with far fewer regulations. Noble's guess: With a campaign event, Trump will have greater control over who can attend and other logistics.

Most presidents wait at least a couple years before restarting campaign events. Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all waited more than two years before filing paperwork to run for reelection. Trump, who has been in office for barely a month, filed federal paperwork for a reelection campaign on Inauguration Day.