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Trump disparages Boeing 737s in private before grounding the plane after deadly crash

President Trump announced the immediate grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on March 13. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As President Trump consulted with administration officials Wednesday over whether Boeing’s 737 Max jetliners should be grounded after a crash killed more than 150 passengers in Ethiopia over the weekend, he shared his pointed opinion of the type of plane in question.

In his words, it “sucked.”

The president said Boeing 737s paled in comparison to the Boeing 757, known as Trump Force One, which he owns as a personal jet, according to White House and transportation officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. He questioned why Boeing would keep building the model and opined that he never would have bought a 737 for the Trump Shuttle, the small airline he briefly ran three decades ago that relied on 727s before going bankrupt, the officials said.

Later in the day, Trump agreed with his aides that the Federal Aviation Administration, as the industry regulator, should formally announce the decision to ground the 737 Max planes, according to two White House officials. But when reporters were brought into the White House for a previously scheduled immigration event, he scrapped the plan.

At airports across the U.S., passengers reacted to the prospect of flying on Boeing’s 737 Max 8 jets, the same aircraft involved in two fatal crashes. (Video: Luis Velarde, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

“We’re going to be issuing an emergency order of prohibition to ground all flights of the 737 Max 8 and the 737 Max 9 and the planes associated with that line,” Trump announced, catching some industry officials by surprise.

The chaotic scene capped a harried three-day period in which the United States lagged almost every other major country in deciding how to respond to an Ethi­o­pian Airlines crash early Sunday, highlighting the Trump administration’s close ties to Boeing and its difficulty asserting itself as a global leader in the wake of a tragedy.

As governments in China, Australia, the European Union and elsewhere were moving to ground the 737 Max plane on Monday and Tuesday, Trump and his administration were in a holding pattern. The president held daily phone calls with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and other stakeholders, offering his self-proclaimed expertise in public and private. On Twitter, he declared that “airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”

When it comes to airplanes, Trump likes to play expert in chief

Trump added to the confusion Wednesday by suggesting that the decision to ground the plane was “psychologically” important but was neither urgent nor conclusive.

“We didn’t have to make this decision today. We could have delayed it,” he said Wednesday. “We maybe didn’t have to make it at all. But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways.”

The equivocation reflected an administration that was reluctant to take the step of imposing a nationwide suspension initially opposed by Boeing, the country’s second-largest federal contractor.

Trump was inclined to announce a grounding on Tuesday, but he received pushback from the FAA, which had not yet reached a decision, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. But Trump also equivocated himself, telling advisers that grounding planes would cause panic and could hurt the stock market, according to two people who spoke to him.

Federal regulators usually take the lead on making decisions related to safety, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

“It’s not the president’s decision and it should never be the president’s decision,” he said, adding that he did not know whether Trump broke any protocols.

On Tuesday, as a growing number of countries were grounding the planes, Trump spoke to Muilenburg, who argued in favor of keeping the planes in the sky, according to a senior administration official. Boeing was facing increasing global pressure after reports showed that pilots had complained about the plane’s automation system.

On Tuesday night, officials said, Trump was given satellite data that indicated the same 737 Max automation system believed to be responsible for a crash in Indonesia last year that killed more than 180 people may have played a role in Sunday’s accident.

By Wednesday morning, officials said, Trump had also seen information about the crash from the Canadian government, which then announced it was grounding the model, leaving the U.S. as the only major country where the aircraft was being allowed to operate.

“We were coordinating with Canada,” Trump said Wednesday. “We were giving them information, they were giving us information.”

Throughout the process, Trump played the role of aviation expert, despite having no formal training in aeronautics. Trump told advisers about the dynamics and equipment of various airplanes, comparing them to his 757.

“He was very much engaged in this,” one official said.

Trump, who claims to have personally renegotiated Boeing’s contract to build Air Force One, relinquished his failed Trump Shuttle between Boston, New York and Washington in 1991 after never making a profit. His criticism of the 737 — the best-selling jetliner model in history — came just weeks after he attended an event in Hanoi celebrating Vietnam’s purchase of 100 of the Boeing jets.

Trump expressed condolences Wednesday for the victims of the Ethi­o­pia crash.

“Our hearts go out to all of those who lost loved ones, to their friends, to their families, in both the Ethiopian and Lion Airlines that involved the 737 Max aircraft,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing.”

FAA noted similarities in Boeing crashes before grounding jets

In deciding to ground the Boeing model, Trump said that Muilenburg, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell were “all in agreement.”

Daniel Wells, who sits on the board of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, said Trump should not have been the person making the announcement.

“The president isn’t the right person to do it. Elwell or Chao should have made the announcement,” said Wells, whose 30,000-member group did not call for the planes to be grounded. “But it was Trump who said it. That tells you everything you need to know.”

Boeing, which as late as Tuesday said publicly it saw no reason to ground the planes, announced soon after Trump made his move that it had recommended the grounding.

“We are supporting this proactive step out of an abundance of caution,” Muilenburg said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

Boeing has a long history of developing close relationships with U.S. presidents. In 2015, President Obama told Seattle TV station KING-TV that he was probably the second-biggest global salesman for Boeing, which he called “an iconic company.”

The company donated $1 million each to the inaugural funds of Trump and Obama.

Boeing has an especially close relationship with the Trump administration, which has recruited several company executives for senior posts, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Muilenburg has courted Trump at the White House, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and at Trump Tower in New York. Trump has twice visited Boeing facilities and praised the company’s aircraft.

“God bless Boeing,” Trump said after touring a company facility in Charleston, S.C., in February 2017.

“Great planes,” he told reporters while visiting a St. Louis facility in March 2018. “Incredible. Great company.”

He has also personally pitched the company’s planes in meetings with world leaders from Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries.

“Greatest commercial aircraft in the world,” he said in November 2017 while meeting with Japanese business leaders. He noted that after the United States, Japan is the largest owner of Boeing aircraft.

Trump also offered a dose of praise for the company as he made his announcement grounding its plane.

“Boeing is an incredible company,” he said. “They are working very, very hard right now. And hopefully they will very quickly come up with the answer. But until they do, the planes are grounded.”