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F-35 program chief downplays Trump phone call with Boeing CEO listening in

February 16, 2017 (Photo Credit: US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s F-35 program director confirmed on Thursday that he was aware that the Boeing CEO was on the line during a Jan. 17 call from then President-elect Donald Trump.

Late last night, Bloomberg reported that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was present during one of Trump’s January phone calls to Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the government’s F-35 program executive officer. According to the story, Muilenburg was in Trump’s New York office for a meeting and overheard at least the final portion of the conversation — although the report did not specify whether Muilenburg was able to hear Bogdan, or listened in only Trump’s side of the call.  

Bogdan confirmed during a Feb. 16 congressional hearing that the phone call had happened, and that all three men were aware of each other’s presence and participated actively in the conversation.

“It’s important to understand that the discussion that we had were all pre-decisional,” he said during a House Armed Service Committee panel. “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’s capabilities, relative to the Super Hornet.”

Trump and Bogdan also participated in an earlier Jan. 9 phone call without Muilenburg, he said.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Bogdan said he was careful to ensure that no proprietary or classified information was discussed in front of the Boeing CEO.

“The things that I talked about in front of Mr. Muilenburg were clearly publicly releasable information, and I understand the rules about talking about Lockheed Martin stuff in front of Mr. Muilenburg,” he 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-35. So it was not inappropriate.”

The Pentagon is currently studying — as directed by Defense Secretary James Mattis in a Jan. 26 memo —  how to make the F-35 more affordable and whether to alter the currently planned mix of Super Hornets and F-35s. The conversation between Muilenburg, Bogdan and Trump directly informed the objectives of the review, Bogdan acknowledged.

“Those tasks are ongoing, they’re not complete yet. We have yet to comport the answers to the Secretary of Defense. I am sure as soon as we report those tasks to him, he will then relay them to the appropriate folks in the administration,” he said.

Bogdan characterized the Jan. 17 phone call as “very forthright,” with Trump in a “learning mode,” seeking to better understand the difference in capabilities between the F-35 and Super Hornet.

Trump and Bogdan first met during a December briefing at the president’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida, days after the president-elect had tweeted that the program’s cost were “out of control.” Trump’s schedule that day was packed full, with briefings from other senior military officials and separate meetings with Muilenburg and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson.

Face time between Bogdan and Trump was limited during the meeting, and at the time “he made it very clear with his staff and that he would be reaching out and asking me more questions,” Bogdan said, adding that he was not surprised that Trump had sought him out for further discussion before his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Although Trump has been personally involved with the F-35 program since his election, he may be beginning to hand off the reins to other Pentagon leaders. After Trump’s inauguration, Bogdan has been communicating with Mattis and acting Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, not directly with the president, he said.

“I would expect that will be the normal way of doing business.”
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