Questions are mounting about US President Donald Trump’s involvement with the struggling Prestwick Airport, with an internal US Air Force inquiry and an investigation in Congress, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
In the autumn of 2014, Donald Trump, then still very much a reality show host-cum-hotel developer, touched down at Glasgow Prestwick Airport to drum up publicity for his newly purchased Turnberry resort.
He convened a press conference in one of Prestwick’s cold, cavernous hangars that would house his personalised Boeing 757 jet, and spoke of how he would help usher “hundreds” more jets into the stricken, state-owned hub as part of an “official partnership”.
The exact details of that tie-up, and its tangible benefits for Prestwick, were not disclosed. One official in attendance confided it was all a bit “jam tomorrow”. The focus instead fell on the sideshow whipped up by the host, as he invited journalists to tour his aircraft, fitted with – what else – 24-carat seatbelt buckles.
Mr Trump’s offer came with a proviso. The journalists either removed their footwear, or covered them up with blue protective bags. “They have to be clean,” he insisted. “They can’t have dirty shoes.”
The baubles duly distracted, and the promises of new-found revenue went unchallenged. But now, nearly five years on, Mr Trump’s relationship with the airport is the basis of a growing international political scandal.
The US president has denied all knowledge of a US Air Force crew stopping over Prestwick in March this year, let alone going on to stay at his Turnberry resort. He tweeted that he did not own the airport – a curious denial to a question no one asked – adding in block capitals: “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.”
Which is, unsurprisingly, not remotely true on any level.
Under his presidency, US military traffic at Prestwick has skyrocketed. Throughout 2015, there were 95 stopovers; in the first eight months of 2019, there have been 259, with nearly as many (220) overnight stays by crews in the area.
It is unclear how many of those were at Turnberry, but diligent reporting by Politico’s national security correspondent, Natasha Bertrand, indicates there have been at least four since last September, with over 60 military personnel staying at Turnberry. Prestwick told me it “routinely” arranges overnight accommodation for visiting aircrews at Turnberry and other hotels.
The idea of Mr Trump enriching himself through his own military has understandably stirred emotions, although the question of how such an ethically fraught arrangement can be allowed to take hold seems best directed lower down his administration.
Mr Trump, as far as we know, is not involved in the daily deployment of US Air Force flights, and it seems unlikely his notorious disdain for detail would permit him to get involved in overseas accommodation for US military personnel.
But that does not mean he should escape scrutiny. Far from it.
What, if any, influence has he brought to bear over the upsurge in military flights at Prestwick? The USAF attributes the spike to the viability of the airport’s round-the-clock services, and newly standardised routing locations which identified Prestwick as a “top” site.
But as the chaotic Trump presidency has shown, there are plentiful conflicts of interest surrounding patronage of his properties. Vice-president Mike Pence recently stayed at Mr Trump’s Irish resort, while Bill Barr, the attorney general, is reportedly planning a £30,000 private party at Mr Trump’s Washington DC hotel. At best, this is the legacy of permitting a cult of personality to dominate the US government and allowing perceived impropriety to flourish; at worst, it is institutional corruption. Even if Mr Trump did not order the changes, they may have been put in place to appease him.
Let us hope the US House Oversight Committee’s investigation into Turnberry and Prestwick – and a concurrent USAF internal inquiry – shed light on this.
Some facts are self-evident. It is clear Mr Trump wants Prestwick to prosper. Its co-dependency with Turnberry has been overstated. Prestwick will have just 11 scheduled trans-Europeaan passenger services come October, but it remains important to lifting Turnberry out of the red. Mr Trump’s resort, don’t forget, has consistently run up losses since 2014, and remains reliant on £107m in loans.
As a private citizen and business owner, Mr Trump was perfectly entitled to pursue synergies with Prestwick, and did so with aplomb, personally speaking with Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary to try and bolster passenger traffic. I also wrote of how Turnberry staff held unminuted discussions with Prestwick over potential business deals and integrating their businesses.
This trend continued well into Mr Trump’s campaign and presidency. In February 2016, I interviewed George Sorial, the then executive vice-president at the Trump Organisation, who told me the company would not rule out investing in the airport “if there was a proposal on the table that made sense”. The following year, Turnberry staff were even invited by the airport to Copenhagen to help pitch for prospective airlines.
The issue at hand is whether the same corporate strategy employed by Mr Trump to improve the prospects of his loss-making resort has remained in play during his presidency. It is seldom easy to determine where his private interests end, and his public duties begin, but the scandal swirling around Turnberry may yet provide a definitive answer. The shoes are off. And the gloves too.