'Misperception' Concerns over Air Force Crew's Trump Resort Stay May Prompt New Policies

The Scottish flag flies in the wind as police patrol the area outside near Trump Turnberry Luxury Collection Resort during the U.S. President's visit to the United Kingdom on July 14, 2018 in Turnberry, Scotland. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The Scottish flag flies in the wind as police patrol the area outside near Trump Turnberry Luxury Collection Resort during the U.S. President's visit to the United Kingdom on July 14, 2018 in Turnberry, Scotland. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

While officials stress that no one broke any rules when service members stayed at a Trump-owned property in Scotland, some have acknowledged the move probably wasn't the U.S. Air Force's best look.

The service has found itself pressed with questions in recent days about why personnel would opt to stay at a property owned by the Trump organization. While not in violation of Defense Department travel policies, did no one stop to think it would leave a bad impression?

"[That's a] good question," one senior defense official told Miltary.com. The official added that the Air Force has not recently issued any directives prohibiting business with establishments connected to Trump.

It's unclear whether the DoD will consider a military-wide policy, something that could also come from Congress or the White House general counsel, the official said.

Related: Air Force Reviewing Layover Guidelines amid Scrutiny of Trump Property Stay

But the news has rattled lawmakers already pushing to stop any business dealings the government may have with the Trump organization.

"The House sent a clear message by adopting our amendment in July that we will not allow taxpayer funds, including the defense budget, to be used to enrich the president," Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement..

"As alarming details emerge about U.S. Air Force crews staying at the president's luxury golf resort in Scotland, it has become even more important that Congress include this language in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act," Beyer added.

The measure aims to block the Defense Department from spending money at any of the president's 50-plus properties around the world.

"The president has already shown a willingness to violate the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, and Congress has a duty to use every tool we can to stop him," Beyer said Monday.

Found in Article Two, Section One of the Constitution, the Emoluments Clause is intended to keep the president from receiving any benefit from government beyond a set salary.

The NDAA amendment is co-sponsored by Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and Ted Lieu of California, all Democrats.

Politico reported Friday that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating the stopovers at Glasgow Prestwick Airport in Scotland as part of a larger probe into military stays at Trump-owned properties. In March, a C-17 Globemaster III crew, consisting of seven active-duty and National Guard crew members from Alaska, stayed at Trump's Turnberry resort when en route to Kuwait; they only landed at Prestwick airport on the return trip to the U.S.

The stop in Scotland prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to investigate whether U.S. military stays have boosted Turnberry's revenue.

Air Force officials have previously said the Trump property, at $136 per night, was a cheaper stay than the local Marriott, at $161 per night. The aircrew stayed at the Marriott on the return leg of the trip, officials said.

In 2017, the Air Force issued guidance to route airlift and tanker crews through specific airfields to give overtaxed bases operations tempo relief, Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, said Monday.

That guidance encouraged stops at Prestwick, as well as Belfast International Airport in Northern Ireland.

"We have to remember that there are circumstances where you're at a location in the world and sometimes there are limited options for you to go to. I'm not saying that's necessarily the case in Prestwick or Belfast; I think there's multiple options that are available," Thomas said in an interview. "But that's why [Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan] are asking that, and that is ... that we need to be sensitive to the potential for misperception even though we're following all the rules."

Following Politico's report, the Air Force said it had begun reviewing its U.S. Transportation Command and AMC travel logs to see where and how often its aircrew members stay at hotels around the world, and whether the associated guidance should be updated.

Goldfein and Donovan expect an answer within 30 days, according to a Sept. 9 memo.

When asked if officials knew there was a Trump property near Prestwick when making the new flight plan regulation and had considered whether that would raise eyebrows, Thomas said the Air Force prioritized airfield locations, not hotels.

He added that the service did look for a region with a variety of accommodation options.

"You have [to keep in mind] different sizes of crews as they transfer to new locations, you have to make sure that you can get them underneath the government rate, that those locations need to be available and suitable... and we also don't want to be predictable and going to the same place every time with the same numbers of people," he said.

Pilots who've spoken with Military.com in recent days explained that all crew members are required to lodge in the same location for continuity and safety reasons. So if a hotel, bed and breakfast, or other lodging establishment does not have enough rooms for the entire crew, the accommodation cannot be used.

"I've got to believe that the individual who is doing the assistance with getting aircrew billeted is considering all those factors as they determine where to put the crews" for an overnight stay, Thomas said. Those factors also include drive time and mileage.

Options for government lodging are based on requirements set in the Defense Travel System. The hotel must be FEMA-compliant, meaning it meets the standards established in the Hotel and Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, a Defense Department spokesperson said on background.

Thomas pointed to a similar increase in landings in Belfast, which is not near a Trump property. (While Turnberry is about a 45- to 60-minute drive from Prestwick, the nearest Trump property to Belfast is five hours away.)

That said, there were nearly twice as many layovers at Prestwick.

AMC aircraft landed at Prestwick 936 times between 2015 and 2019, including 659 overnight stays in the area, officials said. Aircrews stopped at Belfast 508 times with 380 overnight stays over the same time frame, according to the command.

After speaking with Goldfein, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that the DoD may have to rethink using luxury resorts.

"Is it appropriate to stay at some places some people may consider to be a luxury property, or do we need to rethink that?" Hoffman told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. "And that's something the Air Force is looking at right now."

Politico reported that the Air Force has spent $11 million on fuel at Prestwick, roughly 20 miles from Turnberry, since October 2017. The crews reportedly could have saved money by refueling at a nearby base such as RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; or Naval Station Rota, Spain.

Hoffman stood by the Pentagon's fuel deal with the airport.

"We have a negotiated rate significantly lower than the commercial rate," he said.

Thomas, who stopped at Prestwick himself in 2004, said the Air Force looks to see whether the airports have the necessary 24/7 access and runway space and if they have a contract with the Defense Logistics Agency to offer fuel at lower than the market rate, among many other factors.

"We've got to have the ability to go to other locations to keep the throughput [of aircraft movement] in the system. And so that's why we go out and we look for places like Prestwick and others, like Belfast," Thomas said.

For civil airports like Prestwick, where the Defense Logistics Agency has an "into-plane" contract in place, fuel is $3.38 per gallon, AMC spokesman Col. Damien Pickart said.

"Is that a little bit more than what we would pay if it was bulk fuel at a military installation? Yes, it's about 13% more than it is at a military installation," Thomas said.

AMC officials said the price is still below the $10 per gallon market rate offered to other customers.

Pickart said fuel rates and flight data that AMC has gathered have been provided to lawmakers.

-- Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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