Donald Trump Flew to Storm-Ravaged Puerto Rico to Heap Praise on … the F-35
What the stealth fighter has to do with disaster-relief is anyone's guess
U.S. president Donald Trump flew to Luis Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3, 2017 to survey the damage from Hurricane Maria, which struck the island territory in late September 2017.
Mid-way through a rambling, incoherent speech downplaying the disaster — which killed at least 16 people, destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and deprived nearly half the population of safe drinking water — Trump somehow pivoted to … the F-35 stealth fighter.
Among other insults.
Trump began by heaping praise on the U.S. Coast Guard, whose ships and personnel are participating in military-led relief efforts. “A lot of people got to see the real Coast Guard during this incredible trouble, and especially I think here and in Texas was incredible what they did,” Trump said. “So thank you all very much. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. Really appreciate it.”
The president apparently mistook a U.S. Air Force airman in the audience for a Coast Guardsman. “Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?” Trump asked.
“Sir, I’m representing the Air Force,” the airman said.
“No, I know that,” Trump countered.
“It’s been a tremendous team effort partnering with FEMA and [Northern Command], providing support now … also to U.S. Virgin Islands and to Puerto Rico, specifically trying to open up the airfields so that we can get — as an island — get the majority of the supplies and … with the people and personnel setting up across the island, set up logistics networks so we could really get to people that are the most hurt and devastated by the catastrophe,” the airman said.
“And the runways now are pretty open?” Trump asked.
“Yes, sir,” the airman replied. “We have four major runways that are fully open and operational, flown about 700-plus strategic airlift sorties to and from [the United States to] Puerto Rico to provide life-sustaining support.”
“Amazing job,” Trump said. “Amazing job. So amazing that we’re ordering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35?”
“Game-changing technology, awesome airplane,” the airman said.
“I said, how does it do it in fights?” Trump intoned. “And how do they do in fights with the F-35? They said, we do very well. You can’t see it. Literally you can’t see it. So it’s hard to fight a plane that you can’t see, right?”
“Sir, we like that,” the airman confirmed.
“But that’s an expensive plane that you can’t see,” Trump continued. “And as you probably heard, we cut the price very substantially — something that other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you. So thank you very much.”
At top — Pres. Donald Trump visits Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, 2017. Above — the U.S. Air Force airlifts vulnerable island residents from the path of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Air Force photo
It’s unclear what, in Trump’s mind, the F-35 has to do with Puerto Rico. It’s also untrue that the Trump administration cut the F-35’s cost. Candidate Trump had threatened to cancel the $1.4-trillion program, but president Trump quickly made peace with it.
On Jan. 30, 2017, Trump announced a “deal” with Lockheed Martin to reportedly trim $600 million from the F-35’s final price tag. But the projected savings were, in fact, the result of planned multi-year bulk purchases of the radar-evading warplane that the government had been negotiating with Lockheed before Trump won the presidential election in November 2016.
“Although this appears to be a victory for those concerned about out-of-control costs of the F-35 program, these savings don’t really exist,” said Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project on Government Oversight’s Straus Military Reform Project. “The so-called savings announced today are little more than the bulk-rate discount for the next yearly purchase of 90 aircraft.”
That Trump flew to Puerto Rico to, in part, talk about a trillion-dollar weapons program could be especially insulting to residents of an island whose economy all but washed away in Hurricane Maria’s 150-mile-per-hour winds. U.S. Army lieutenant general Jeffrey Buchanan, who is overseeing military efforts on the island, said the devastation is “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
That didn’t stop Trump from attacking Puerto Rican politicians and residents who, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, begged federal officials for assistance. “They want everything to be done for them,” Trump tweeted.
But it was the administration that unnecessarily delayed relief efforts, initially refusing to exempt Puerto Rico from a law requiring that only U.S.-flag ships carry supplies to the island — a requirement that slows shipping and roughly doubles its cost.
At the Air Guard station in Carolina, Trump doubled down on his criticism of the island — even accusing 3.5 million thirsty, electricity-less Puerto Ricans of blowing a hole in the federal budget. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you threw our budget a little out of whack.”
Never mind that Trump’s proposal to cut taxes for the wealthy could increase the federal budget deficit by more than $2 trillion over 10 years, according to an independent estimate.