In an unconventional move, Donald Trump called the general in charge of the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet twice before he was sworn in as president to gauge the aircraft’s capabilities and cost in relation to a competing model.
And on one of those calls the CEO of Boeing was on the line with Trump.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan confirmed during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was on the line during a January 17 phone call with the president-elect. The calls, reported by Bloomberg hours before the hearing, are a breach of tradition. The secretary of defense, not the president, typically communicates with generals in charge of various defense programs.
Boeing’s competitor Lockheed Martin assembles the F-35 in Fort Worth, Texas. A representative for Lockheed declined to comment Thursday on Bogdan’s phone calls with Trump.
Boeing builds the Super Hornet for the Navy, and Trump suggested on social media in December 2016 that Boeing’s plane could compete with Lockheed’s F-35 if costs didn’t go down. Trump is scheduled to speak at a Boeing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Friday. Boeing declined to comment on Thursday’s hearing or the phone calls.
The things that I talked about in front of (Boeing CEO) Mr. Muilenburg were clearly publicly releasable information and I understand the rules of talking Lockheed Martin stuff in front of Mr. Muilenburg. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan
“It’s important to understand that the discussions we had were all pre-decision,” Bogdan said, referring to F-35 cost cuts announced in January. “There were no decisions made during those conversations, and it was my belief that President-elect Trump at the time was attempting to gain more information about the F-35 and its affordability, trying to gain more information about the F-35’s capabilities relative to the Super Hornet and to gain more information about the presidential aircraft replacement program.”
Thursday’s hearing on the F-35 was supposed to be a progress update on the Pentagon’s most expensive project in history, but Trump’s phone calls loomed over the mostly technical questions from members of Congress.
Bogdan said his conversation with Trump in the presence of Muilenburg contained all “publicly releasable” information and that he had no comment on whether it was inappropriate for the president-elect to have a private sector CEO on the phone with a sitting general.
“The things that I talked about in front of Mr. Muilenburg were clearly publicly releasable information and I understand the rules of talking Lockheed Martin stuff in front of Mr. Muilenburg,” Bogdan said. “The reason why Mr. Muilenburg was there was because the discussion was about advanced Super Hornets and the presidential airplane and not necessarily F-35s.”
Bogdan said he was not surprised by the call because of Trump’s interest in comparing the F-35 and Super Hornet during a meeting with generals in December at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
While Trump dominated the hearing, Bogdan also was pressed on the increasing costs of research and development for the F-35, which he said totals an additional $535 million.
“I’m just curious how confident you are that you won’t be coming back here in the next round and suddenly the numbers have moved,” asked Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts. “How confident are you?”
Bogdan said $165 million of the increased costs are due to new cybersecurity requirements that were not accounted for in a previous budget estimate and that $267 million was due to “unexpected results we had in flight testing” including an engine that caught on fire.
“In the five years that I have run this program I have never come back to the services or to you to ask for more money,” Bogdan said to Tsongas.
Despite issues including potentially dangerous ejection seats and inadequate vertical landing capabilities for the Marine Corps’ version of the F-35, Bogdan said on Thursday he anticipates that the plane will cost between $80 million and $85 million to produce in 2019, a significant cost decrease from earlier models.
As part of the cost cuts announced in January, it was announced that the Army’s version of the F-35 with traditional takeoff and landing capabilities will now cost less than $100 million.
Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth is a member of the Armed Services Committee, and he asked on Thursday about the status of potential competitors to the F-35 being developed by countries like China and Russia.
“Several of our adversaries are trying to capture capabilities, and are quickly closing that gap,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris said. “They are maximizing their ability to procure fifth generation airplanes.”
Bogdan said after the hearing that he doesn’t anticipate any more late night phone calls from Trump and that any future communication with the F-35 program will come through defense secretary James Mattis.
“I would expect that would be the normal way of doing business,” Bogdan said.