Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Turnberry Golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, June 24, 2016.
Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Scandal surrounding Trump’s self-dealing takes an unsettling turn

Updated

The Rachel Maddow Show, 9/6/19, 9:03 PM ET

House probes military travel to troubled Trump resort: Politico

Natasha Bertrand, national security correspondent for Politico, talks with Rachel Maddow about new reporting that military flights may have been making unusual stop-overs at Donald Trump’s Scotland resort as a means of pumping money into Trump’s
Not long before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, he was publicly determined to help the Prestwick Airport in Scotland succeed. As late as March 30, 2015, less than three months before kicking off his White House bid, the Republican was focusing attention on bolstering the Scottish facility.

There was no great mystery about the motivations behind his efforts: Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland was losing money and its future would be even bleaker if the Prestwick Airport failed. It stood to reason that he’d take steps to prop up the facility because of its direct relevance to his struggling business.

The larger question, of course, is just how far Trump would go to prop up the airport. Keep that in mind when reading Politico’s amazing scoop from Friday night.

In early Spring of this year, an Air National Guard crew made a routine trip from the U.S. to Kuwait to deliver supplies. What wasn’t routine was where the crew stopped along the way: President Donald Trump’s Turnberry resort, about 50 miles outside Glasgow, Scotland.

Since April, the House Oversight Committee has been investigating why the crew on the C-17 military transport plane made the unusual stay – both en route to the Middle East and on the way back – at the luxury waterside resort, according to several people familiar with the incident. But they have yet to receive any answers from the Pentagon.

The pace of Trump’s self-dealing scandals has clearly been picking up of late. Last week, we learned that Vice President Mike Pence and his sizable entourage traveled to Ireland and stayed at Trump’s business – at the president’s “suggestion” – which is on the other side of the country from his scheduled meetings in Dublin. The questions about corruption were hard to dismiss.

The week before, Trump suggested he was prepared to lobby for the next G7 summit to be held at his business in Miami, creating a situation in which leaders of many of the world’s most powerful countries would be required to spend considerable resources at a struggling business in order to participate in official diplomatic engagements with the U.S. government.

But the questions surrounding the military stops in Scotland are every bit as serious – and by some measures, worse.

The fact that the C-17 military transport plane was flying to and from Kuwait wasn’t new; it had made the same round trip dozens of times before. The fact that it made a stop in between also wasn’t notable, since that was a routine part of the itinerary.

But as the Politico report made clear, on previous trips, the C-17 had landed “at U.S. air bases such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany or Naval Station Rota in Spain to refuel.” It would also occasionally stop “in the Azores and once in Sigonella, Italy, both of which have U.S. military sites.”

If the transport plane really needed to stop in the U.K., there’s a U.S. air base in England.

But, no. The plane instead went to the Scottish airport nearest the president’s private business – and had the crew stay there, despite costs in excess of per-diem allowances.

Obviously, there’s a question about whether this was part of an effort to direct more American tax dollars into one of the president’s struggling foreign businesses, but there’s also the question of whether this was a scheme to prop up a foreign airport in order to provide an indirect benefit to Trump’s resort. The Politico report added that the U.S. military “spent $11 million on fuel at the Prestwick Airport – the closest airport to Trump Turnberry – since October 2017, fuel that would be cheaper if purchased at a U.S. military base.”

Prestwick Airport is a money-losing enterprise, which the Scottish government owns and hopes to sell. If the airport were to close, things would go from bad to worse at Trump’s business.

It’s against this backdrop that some in the military apparently settled on a plan that would benefit both the president’s money-losing business and the nearby money-losing airport.

Just to make this perfectly plain, we’re talking about a potential corruption scandal without precedent in the American tradition, implicating both the president and the military.

Military officials have reportedly been slow to cooperate with congressional investigators, though as NBC News reported overnight, the Air Force has decided to investigate the matter. The Air Force said it doesn’t believe any regulations were broken, but it’s agreed to examine the matter further because of a possible perception that it’s “not being good stewards of taxpayer funds.”

What’s less clear is whether the Air Force is also prepared to start answering questions raised by congressional investigators, independent of the military branch’s internal review.

Update: Trump published a tweet on the story this morning, saying in all caps that he had “nothing to do with” the military decisions in the matter.

Second Update: White House allies have been quick to note that the Air Force made use of the same Scottish airport before Trump took office. By all accounts, that’s true. What this does not explain, however, is the significant increases in the frequency with which the U.S. military has made use of the airport.