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The problem with Donald Trump's preoccupation with the F-35

Trump's rhetoric about the F-35 has gradually evolved from odd to creepy to you've-got-to-be-kidding-me.
A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

A few months ago, Donald Trump spoke to graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and he made a few headlines by whining, "No politician in history -- and I say this with great surety -- has been treated worse or more unfairly" than himself.

In the same speech, however, the president went on to say, "I won't talk about how much I saved you on the F-35 fighter jet. I won't even talk about it."

The funny thing is, he can't stop talking about it.

Late last week, for example, before HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned, Trump was asked about his scandal-plagued cabinet secretary. The president told reporters, "I certainly don't like the optics. As I said, we renegotiate deals. We're renegotiating trade deals. We're renegotiating -- as an example, the F-35 fighter plane, I've saved hundreds of millions of dollars. So I don't like the optics of what you just saw."

Though the F-35 had nothing to do with the Price controversy, moments later, Trump did it again. "I have a great Cabinet, and we save hundreds of millions of dollars through negotiation," he said. "I'll give you an example. With the F-35 fighter plane -- me, myself -- I've saved hundreds of millions of dollars in negotiating. And that's one of the reasons I don't like seeing anybody even have a question about, you know, flying."

I think he was trying to say that F-35 savings help cover the costs of his cabinet members using taxpayer money for chartered private jets -- as if that somehow made sense.

This week, Trump traveled to Puerto Rico, where he received a briefing on Hurricane Maria relief efforts. After an Air Force representative talked about clearing runways on the island, the president immediately focused his attention on ... wait for it ... the F-35.

AIR FORCE REPRESENTATIVE: We have four major runways that are fully open and operational; flown about 700-plus strategic airlift sorties to and from OCONUS, (inaudible) Puerto Rico to provide life-sustaining support.TRUMP: Amazing job. Amazing job. So amazing that we're ordering hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35? [...] I said, how does it do it in fights? And how do they do in fights with the F-35? They said, we do very well. You can't see it. Literally, you can't see it. So it's hard to fight a plane that you can't see, right?AIR FORCE REPRESENTATIVE: Sir, we like that.TRUMP: But that's an expensive plane that you can't see. And as you probably heard, we cut the price very substantially -- something that other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you. So thank you very much.

Trump's rhetoric about the F-35 has gradually evolved from odd to creepy to you've-got-to-be-kidding-me.

For now, let's put aside hopes that the president doesn't literally believe the plane is invisible. Instead, let's focus on two simple truths.

First, Trump's obsession with this clearly isn't healthy. Watching the president in Puerto Rico this week, he seemed to be approaching "a noun, a verb, and F-35" territory.

Second, Trump doesn't fully understand the details of his obsession. Despite his repeated claims that he's done a masterful job saving taxpayers millions -- "something that other administrations would never have done" -- there's ample evidence to the contrary. Politico reported in February:

Lockheed Martin is praising President Donald Trump's personal intervention — and obsessive criticism on Twitter — for slashing the price of the long-troubled F-35 fighter jet, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program ever.But the evidence suggests that the price reduction would have happened even without Trump.The main factors driving down the price of each jet include the fact that the military was planning to order them in larger quantities for U.S. forces and allies, according to company and military officials, lawmakers and a POLITICO review of several years of program data. Earlier pressure from the Obama administration and Congress to shave expenses also played a role."This would've happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected president," said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant who works for several top Pentagon contractors.

CNBC had a similar report earlier this year.

By all appearances, Trump keeps talking about this because he sees the F-35 as tangible proof of something worthwhile he's done since taking office. But like so much of his presidency, it's a sham.