The Trump administration’s close ties to Boeing are facing new scrutiny in the wake of deadly plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia involving the Boeing 737 MAX8 jet. President Trump has publicly praised Boeing hundreds of times in his two years in office and participated in efforts to sell its planes, including the 737 MAX series, to countries and airlines around the world. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg praised Trump’s support at a dinner last August at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was appointed by Trump, spent 31 years as a Boeing executive. And Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been nominated to the Boeing board of directors. We speak to William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. His recent piece in The Nation is titled “A Former Boeing Executive Is Now Running the Pentagon.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Trump administration’s close ties to Boeing are facing new scrutiny in the wake of deadly plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet. The Transportation Department has launched an investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the plane, since Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed last week, killing all 157 people on board. The Ethiopian transport minister said early investigations have revealed clear similarities between the crash in Ethiopia and the Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 that crashed in October, killing 189 people. While the detailed information has yet to be released, flight tracking data shows both flights seemed to go through unpredictable climbs and descents before crashing just minutes after takeoff. The U.S. did not immediately ground Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets after the crash in Ethiopia, despite growing international pressure. President Trump eventually ordered U.S. airlines to ground all the planes, but continued to praise Boeing. All Boeing 737 MAX jets around the world have now been grounded.
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has publicly praised Boeing hundreds of times in his two years in office and participated in efforts to sell its planes, including the 737 MAX series, to countries and airlines around the world. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg praised Trump’s support at a dinner last August at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was appointed by Trump, spent 31 years as a Boeing executive. And Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been nominated to the Boeing board of directors.
We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. In January, he wrote the piece for The Nation headlined “A Former Boeing Executive Is Now Running the Pentagon.”
Do you think that has some bearing, Bill Hartung, on President Trump dragging his feet on the grounding of the MAX series, after almost 250 people were killed, between Indonesia and Ethiopia, in the Boeing MAX 8 planes?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, it’s hard to know how Donald Trump’s mind works, obviously, but Boeing has such clout in Washington, particularly on the defense side, but also viewed as a major commercial force in its airline business, that it’s certainly possible. You know, we don’t have a smoking gun, so to speak, but, you know, as you said, Trump is so close to Boeing, I wouldn’t rule it out, that at least it gave them pause about doing anything that would hurt Boeing’s interests.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill Hartung, what about the whole issue of the FAA’s role in green-lighting the use of the 737 MAX 8 and basically depending on Boeing to be the one to let them know that everything was OK with the new plane?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, this is a common practice. You know, you sort of like — companies sort of capture the regulatory agencies, and the regulatory agencies almost become partners or supporters of industry instead of regulators of industry. And so, I think that’s part of what happened here.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, can you talk to about Shanahan, the longest acting defense secretary in history, his significance and his long history at Boeing, and what that means for U.S. foreign policy and the Pentagon?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, this is what Eisenhower had in mind when he talked about unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex. There couldn’t be a better example of this. And in his 31 years at Boeing, Shanahan worked on missile defense. He oversaw the Apache helicopter, which is being used in Yemen. He also worked on the airliner side. So he’s spent a lot more time pushing Boeing products than he’s ever spent on defense policy. And when it comes to the taxpayers versus Boeing, in his mind, I think, Boeing wins out.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about his serving the interests of Boeing even as acting secretary of defense?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, he was supposed to recuse himself from Boeing matters, but it’s not possible to do that. Boeing gets $20 billion a year. They’re the second-biggest defense contractor. He actually — he’s been trashing Lockheed Martin, saying Boeing could run programs better, like the F-35. Even more egregious, he’s been pushing a Boeing plane, the F-15X, which the Air Force doesn’t even want. And he’s actually — private groups have called for an ethics investigation as relating to that.
He’s also — there’s a whole range of issues before him that would benefit Boeing. He’s a big advocate of the Space Force. You know, he’s going to have to decide about U.S. role in Yemen, or at least weigh in. And Boeing sells combat aircraft, bombs, attack helicopters, maintains the planes being used by Saudi Arabia to do the bombing raids in the war. They’re building a new ICBM, one of the competitors to do that, a ballistic missile. And some critics have said this is the most dangerous weapon in the U.S. arsenal, because it’s on hair-trigger alert. President would have minutes to decide whether to use one of these things. He’s likely to weigh in, if this becomes an issue, on behalf of ICBMs and Boeing’s interests. There’s also the KC-46, which is a tanker plane. It’s been so screwed up, that the Air Force has decided they’re not even sure they’re going to accept delivery yet. How is he going to weigh in on that? Likely, he’s going to try to give Boeing a break.
So, there’s a whole range of issues. It’s almost hard to think of anything in the Pentagon, where there’s not a connection that could benefit major contractors, where Shanahan is at the middle of that decision making. And as I said, because his career has been really shilling for defense contractors, not making defense policy, it’s a huge problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also written that he’s been involved very much in Trump’s idea of developing a Space Development — a Space Force and a Space Development Agency, which you call an “authority on steroids” to shove more expensive contracts out the door. Could you expand on that?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes. The Space Development Agency basically wants to fast-track these weapons programs that deal with military, space, the militarization of space, which means there could be technical problems, there could be cost overruns. I think the bigger issue is, this administration is now talking about testing weapons in space — laser beams, particle lasers, particle beams. These are the kind of things, the sort of Buck Rogers stuff, that Ronald Reagan talked about, all of which failed miserably. In fact, Shanahan oversaw the Airborne Laser program, which was supposed to use 747s and lasers to zap enemy missiles in outer space. That program failed. It was canceled, cost taxpayers $5 billion. So he’s basically pushing, you know, “Let’s militarize space.”
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, we have to leave it there, but we’ll continue to cover this. Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.