, FEB. 17, 2017
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Trump, seeking to reset his stumbling presidency, hit the road for a photo op and returned to the simple economic message that got him elected, telling aircraft factory workers that “we’re here to celebrate jobs.”
The president toured a sprawling Boeing complex here, next to the airport, en route to a weekend in Florida that includes a stay at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, and a Saturday rally in Melbourne. Both are the kind of campaign-style events he has often turned to for a political and personal jolt in times of turmoil.
“We’re going to fight for every last American job,” said Mr. Trump, adding that his “focus” was on jobs. He spoke after slowly walking in front of a gleaming new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at a slickly produced event that erased the lines between corporate and political branding.
“God bless Boeing,” Mr. Trump said after offering a similar benediction for the nation.
Swerving from the script loaded into the teleprompter, he joked with Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, about continuing negotiations over the cost of building a new fleet of Air Force One jets (the current models are more than three decades old).
“What can look so beautiful at 30? An airplane,” he said, as the audience guffawed.
Mr. Trump, fresh off his raucous news conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, seemed thrilled to escape the marble political prison of the executive complex — and to break free from a narrative of chaos and infighting that has characterized his rocky and eventful presidential debut.
The president’s trip came hours after the man he chose to replace Mr. Flynn, retired Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, turned him down. He has plans to meet with other candidates this weekend in Florida.
Mr. Trump’s appearance at the manufacturing complex, in a state he won by 15 points in November, vividly illustrated the second side of his split-screen presidency. It was a disciplined drumbeat of events, including meetings with labor and business leaders intended to demonstrate his commitment to ensuring working-class economic security. That was the pledge that moved skeptical swing state voters to his cause.
“There’s the palace intrigue story about them not being very well coordinated, that the White House isn’t ready for prime time, that he’s still setting things up,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and frequent Trump critic. “There’s a lot of cracks in the armor. And then you have the whole Flynn situation.”
“But you have a very disciplined president when it comes to economic messaging,” said Mr. Graham, who was in Washington on Friday with the Senate in session. “How can that be? I just think he’s more comfortable talking about how we are going to make America a better place for jobs than he is at articulating foreign policy.”
Mr. Trump, a president obsessed with optics, could not have chosen a more impressive backdrop to emphasize his commitment to preserving jobs. His staff spent about a week prepping for his visit to the facility here, a six-story factory hangar with four massive Dreamliners under construction, cowlings peeled back to expose the inner workings of the engines, signs affixed to their bodies to indicate their purchasers — in one case, Aeroméxico.
South Carolina is a so-called right-to-work state, with a low level of union participation. Since it began production here in 2009, Boeing has hired 7,500 employees spread around several facilities, investing more than $2 billion in land and infrastructure, while spending about $355 million each year on local suppliers and vendors, according to the company.
“This is our house, and our house is going to remain union free!” said Joan Robinson-Berry, one of plant’s managers, to the applause of about 2,000 employees and local officials who gathered for the president’s visit.
Mr. Trump has criticized Boeing for what he suggested was an overpriced Air Force One replacement. On Friday, he repeated that “the price is too high” but also noted that “we’re negotiating.” Referring to one of Boeing’s major competitors, he said: “We love Lockheed. Great partner.”
The president also said more explicitly than before that the Pentagon would consider buying more Boeing F/A-18 fighters in place of some of the Lockheed Martin F-35s that it had planned to order if Lockheed does not keep lowering the price of the F-35. “If the price doesn’t come down, we would,” he said. Now that Boeing has made it somewhat stealthier, he said, “The F-18’s a great plane.”
Some in the president’s own party, including Mr. Graham, had hoped he would use the trip to announce his support for the embattled Export-Import Bank, a financing partner for Boeing and other companies battling foreign-based competitors. He did not.
The bank is a New Deal-era institution that helps American companies operating overseas arrange and guarantee loans for international customers. It has jokingly been called “the Bank of Boeing,” because the Chicago-based aerospace giant has been among the biggest beneficiaries of the bank’s efforts, with as much of a third of Ex-Im financing deals being steered to help the company win contracts against competitors like Europe’s Airbus.
Mr. Trump, who promised to drain the Washington “swamp,” did not stake out a position on the bank during the 2016 campaign. But he joined the chorus of conservatives and progressive Democrats — ranging from Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, to Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont — who have described the bank as corporate welfare. In one campaign appearance, Mr. Trump called some of the bank’s deals “featherbedding.”
But the president has softened his stance considerably since the inauguration, as he has moved his focus from assuaging his party’s base to fulfilling big campaign promises on jobs, trade and manufacturing. In the last few weeks, he told pro-bank senators that he was leaning toward the appointment of new board members, breaking an impasse that has frozen lending and deal-making for more than a year.
“The comments that he did make during the campaign were critical of the bank, and the signal I got was that he was not a supporter,” said Diane Katz, a fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has worked closely with Mr. Trump’s team but opposes the bank as a government intrusion into free markets.
“Since taking office, he has emphasized the refashioning of trade deals to benefit U.S. workers and retaining manufacturing, so there seems to be a change,” she said. “I hope he’s not backtracking. Boeing, the primary beneficiary of the bank, has a market cap of almost $150 billion. They don’t need any more corporate welfare.”