MEXICO CITY — When Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised during his campaign to sell Mexico’s presidential plane, calling it a symbol of excess, many here took it as bluster.
But two months after winning the presidential election, López Obrador has announced the first serious offer for Mexico’s Air Force One — and it comes from a fierce defender of President Trump, a staunch advocate of a border wall, a man already contemplating what he would do with the 787 known as the José María Morelos y Pavón.
“I’ve already talked to some sheiks,” said Russell Dise, chief executive of JetLease, based in Palm Beach, Fla., whose proposal López Obrador is now discussing publicly, even posting Dise’s letter on his website. “I asked them, ‘If I had a 787, would you be interested?’ ”
“I guess we’d have to paint over the [Mexican] flags,” Dise added.
In July, López Obrador dominated Mexico’s presidential election, riding a wave of anger directed at the current government, which has been plagued by corruption scandals. His message was simple: As president, he would usher in an era of austerity for public servants. He would turn the country’s presidential palace into a museum, he said. He would sell the entire fleet of presidential airplanes and helicopters, traveling instead on commercial flights.
The presidential Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner cost $218 million. It was commissioned in 2012 and delivered in 2016, and is big enough to seat 250 passengers, with an expansive presidential suite.
“We can’t have a rich government and a poor population,” he said again and again on the campaign trail, referring to the fleet as “luxury airplanes.”
Dise is an unlikely partner for the Mexican government. On JetLease’s Facebook page, he posted a music video titled, “Build That Wall,” which refers to Mexico as the “land of weed and blow” and describes Mexican immigrants as “ignoring all your laws” and coming “in droves to your Home Depot.”
“Maybe I should take that down,” he said in a phone interview.
Late last month, López Obrador announced in a news conference that “I just received a proposal that consists of renting [the fleet] from a company that is dedicated to that in Florida.”
It was the first time he had mentioned such a deal — a deal that would allow Dise to lease the planes (and possibly also helicopters) while providing the Mexican government an undisclosed monthly payment. López Obrador explained that the offer was still in the early stages. The next day, he tweeted about the offer.
Back in Palm Beach, Dise said he was amused to see his company’s name splashed all over Mexican media. He had been to Cancun and a couple of other tourist destinations, but he had little connection to the country. On his social media accounts, most of the references to Mexico involved the border wall.
Last January, he tweeted at Trump: “People on welfare should provide the labor for the wall construction !!! No Brainer.”
But a business partner in Mexico had told Dise about López Obrador’s plans to sell or lease the presidential plane, asking whether JetLease would be interested. Dise, a former competitive hockey player and co-pilot for an Ohio cheese company, started JetLease in 1983, and says it is now “the largest private aircraft leasing company in the world.”
He said he has leased airplanes to and from celebrities and business executives whom he declined to name.
“I’ve had several oligarchs,” he said.
He, however, has never offered to lease an airplane on behalf of a government. In an interview, he said that his support for Trump, who is widely loathed in Mexico, should not cast doubt on the sincerity of his proposal.
“We would protect these airplanes for the Mexican government,” he said. “We love our Mexican friends.”
In Dise’s letter to López Obrador, he listed 35 presidential airplanes and helicopters that JetLease would be interested in leasing, asking for permission to inspect the aircraft. Since then, he said, talks have continued. It remains unclear how many aircraft the Mexican government is looking to lease or sell.
At several points during his campaign, López Obrador half-joked that perhaps Trump would be interested in purchasing Mexico’s presidential plane.
“Donald Trump doesn’t have a plane like this,” he said in one video.
Dise is a pretty good stand in for Trump.
He’s a member of the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., where he occasionally posts pictures of hamburgers with the word “Trump” emblazoned on the buns. On Twitter, he wrote, “Thank you Mr. President for making Aviation Great Again!” He explains to anyone who is interested that under Trump, the price of private jets — and the demand for them — has soared.
López Obrador has attempted his own detente with Trump, thanking the U.S. president last month for not recently insulting Mexicans.
López Obrador will take office Dec. 1, and his focus through the transition has been on domestic concerns, holding “peace forums” with the families of victims of drug violence and encouraging them to forgive offenders.
His opponents have continued to fume about the prospect that he might sell the presidential planes, claiming in op-eds that it’s beyond his power as head of state.
López Obrador has traveled mainly on commercial airplanes, providing a shock to travelers who see their president-elect in departure terminals. One video last month showed a long line of people waiting to take selfies with López Obrador, who was waiting to board his flight.
What does Dise think about the man who might soon hand over his 787, a leader known for brash speeches and big, theatrical promises?
“To me, he seems kind of Trumpian,” Dise said.