PENSACOLA, Fla. — The setting sun was painting the skies here a brilliant orange when Air Force One touched down Saturday evening and President Trump roared into his latest campaign rally.
Thousands of red-capped supporters stood on their tippy toes, craned their necks and held their cellphone cameras aloft, awestruck as the presidential aircraft taxied toward the rally stage at Pensacola’s airport. Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” blared on the loudspeakers. The iconic plane’s soft blue-and-white paint shimmered in the glow of massive flood lights. A military steward opened a side door. And, voilà! The commander in chief stepped forward and waved hello.
“Air Force One is the best plane in the world,” said John Weiler, 74, a local Republican Party officer who was downright giddy as he peered through his binoculars to bear witness. “It’s known throughout the world. That plane lands, they know America has landed.”
For Jerrell Lynchard, 18, a college freshman at Pensacola State College, the scene was “one of those things you see in photos, but never think you’ll see in real life. I got goose bumps. It was that ‘there-it-is’ moment.”
There-it-is moments are what Trump has been trying to orchestrate as the showman president dashes across the country in the final days before Tuesday’s midterm elections. A consummate salesman, Trump has been using Air Force One as a prop at his “Make America Great Again” rallies to pitch voters to keep Congress in Republican hands.
The presidential aircraft is both a raw illustration of the power of incumbency and a reminder of Trump’s dominant campaign theme: strength.
“We will never give in,” Trump told the rapt crowd in Pensacola, his plane parked at his side. “We will never give up. We will never back down. We will never surrender. And we will always fight on to victory — always because we are America and our hearts bleed red, white and blue.”
Trump is hardly the first president to use Air Force One as an element of political stagecraft. For decades, presidents have held rallies on airport tarmacs — partly out of efficiency, eliminating the need for a motorcade from the airport to the arena, which saves both driving time for the president and traffic headaches for locals.
Both of Trump’s immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, used Air Force One at some of their rallies. Bush even arrived at a stadium during his 2004 reelection campaign aboard Marine One, with the presidential helicopter landing in the middle of a baseball field before thousands of supporters.
But Trump has been using his plane with particularly high frequency in the home stretch of the midterm campaign. It was a staging element for rallies Saturday in Pensacola and Belgrade, Mont.; Friday in Huntington, W.Va.; and Thursday in Columbia, Mo.
Earlier this month, Trump and Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally arrived aboard Marine One at a rally in Mesa, Ariz., waving to the crowd as they stepped off the dramatically lit helicopter and walked onto the stage.
Trump’s use of Air Force One is raising questions about the ethics and protocol of using a military asset for political purposes. But ethics experts said there is no law preventing Trump from campaigning within view of the plane. And they note that the president, as well as the vice president, is exempt from the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity.
“It’s a question of appearance,” said Richard W. Painter, ethics czar in the Bush White House and an outspoken critic of Trump’s ethics practices. “It’s highly inappropriate, but there’s nobody who can go sanction him for standing in front of the plane to give a political speech. It’s not illegal.”
Painter said the general protocol should be to move the plane out of view of the rally when the president does a political event on a tarmac, because it is an Air Force jet and the military is supposed to be apolitical and never endorse candidates.
“It’s a gray area,” said Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and another vocal Trump critic. “It’s certainly troubling to use federal property as a prop. . . . But I think you’d be hard-pressed to make a case of any actual violation of law as long as they are reimbursing.”
The government requires reimbursement — such as from Trump’s campaign or the Republican National Committee — for costs associated with the president’s travel to and from political events.
The president does not have the option of flying commercial or using his personal plane for political events. He is required to fly Air Force One for all of his travel, including vacations, because of the security and communications systems aboard.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump used his personal Boeing 757 — branded Trump Force One — at his rallies, pulling the plane up to near the stage to great fanfare, often with the dramatic soundtrack of Harrison Ford’s “Air Force One” movie playing.
But in February 2017, when Trump held his first airport hangar rally as president, the White House said it would not use Air Force One “in the background as a prop.”
That policy was clearly dropped as the president’s campaigning picked up pace, however. Trump’s campaign team changed the location of his rally earlier this month in Missoula, Mont., to ensure video footage and pictures of the event would feature Air Force One behind the president as he spoke, according to a report in the Missoulian newspaper.
Trump’s Air Force One arrivals vary by location. Usually he flies the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, with its distinctive hump at the nose, but when airport runways are not long enough to accommodate the big bird, he takes a smaller Boeing 757 model.
That was the plane in which he flew Thursday night in Columbia when an announcement was made at the Trump rally: “Columbia Tower, Air Force One is on final descent.”
Moments later, the plane was wheels down, roaring as it zoomed past the hangar where thousands of supporters were snapping pictures and recording video on their phones. The “Air Force One” soundtrack played, and then Trump disembarked to the beat of Rihanna’s dance anthem “Don’t Stop the Music.”
The next day in Huntington, the crowd cheered as Air Force One approached the rally stage to the strains of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
And then Saturday in Montana, Air Force One landed at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in stunning fashion. The jet touched down against the picturesque backdrop of jagged mountains and the thunderous applause of Trump’s fans.
“I had a tear in my eye,” Isabelle Wieseler, 20. “I grew up watching movies of the president and Air Force One, and this was nothing like that. This was so much more powerful and nothing that I could have ever imagined.”
Rachel Chason in Huntington, W.Va.; Deby Dixon in Belgrade, Mont.; Anne Gearan in Mesa, Ariz.; and Jenna Johnson and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.