Much of the speculation was stirred by eagle-eyed social media users. On Wednesday morning, a Twitter user in Germany posted that he had tracked an aircraft that could be Air Force One. A Britain-based Flickr user later posted a photo of a plane bearing the same blue-and-white color scheme as the presidential aircraft flying over Yorkshire.
Half an hour ago I tracked an unknown aircraft with callsign RCH358 (AE47C4). Visual confirmation suggests it's one of only two VC-25A in the world. Maybe Trump visiting troops and they cover up the fact by implying it's a RCH cargo flight? @CivMilAir @ferchtel @RCH648 @Gerjon_ pic.twitter.com/maT3l1IfWz— Nick (@ETEJSpotter) December 26, 2018
The messages prompted others to track the flight’s call sign and muse that Trump could be traveling to the Middle East.
On a 2003 visit to Iraq, President George W. Bush traveled on Air Force One, as well, passing within sight of a British Airways pilot who reportedly radioed a London control tower to ask, “Did I just see Air Force One?” Yet in the pre-social media era, the secret went no further than that; according to Bush aides at the time, the air control tower misidentified the plane as a Gulfstream 5, to which the pilot replied, “Oh.”
By contrast, when Vice President Pence visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan last year, he flew in a nondescript C-17 transport plane, arriving at Kabul’s presidential palace via helicopter in the dark of night.
The scene as the president and first lady make surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq
There were other hints on Wednesday that Trump had departed Washington. The White House press office was unstaffed and did not issue any daily guidance for the president’s schedule. The Marine who usually stands guard outside the West Wing when the president is in the White House also was nowhere to be seen.
But perhaps most telling was Trump’s uncharacteristic absence from social media: The president, who tweeted at least 10 times each on Sunday and Monday and twice on Christmas Day, had not tweeted in 20 hours by the time his arrival in Iraq was made public. Trump broke that silence late Wednesday afternoon with a tweet in which he shared a video of himself and first lady Melania Trump meeting with troops in Iraq.
Some on Wednesday criticized the White House, saying it should have taken greater care to ensure that the presidential visit remained under wraps.
“Sources telling me Trump’s on his way to visit troops — possibly in Iraq,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a tweet. “Better late than never. But also a bit troubling that so many folks seem to already know about this if it hasn’t happened already. #OpSec anyone?”
Others noted that, given the rise of social media, the White House might want to shift strategies and opt in the future for an aircraft that is more difficult to identify.
In an exchange with reporters shortly after landing in Iraq, Trump described some of the measures taken by the White House to avoid being tracked. He said he flew in a “darkened plane with all windows closed, with no light anywhere; pitch black.”
He also appeared to suggest that previous efforts to arrange a visit to a combat zone had been scrapped because of security concerns, without providing further details.
“We actually had a couple set up but were canceled for security reasons because people were finding out,” Trump said. “Pretty sad when you spend $7 trillion in the Middle East and going in has to be under this massive cover, with planes all over and all of the greatest equipment in the world, and you do everything to get in safely.”
Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.