White House

Rachel Maddow’s Turnberry Tale

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster on the tarmac at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in 2011. (Staff Sergeant Jonathan Steffen/USAF)
Eager to unearth presidential misconduct, she accused members of the United States Air Force of abandoning their “integrity.”

To a certain kind of Rachel Maddow viewer, there are few more titillating preludes to a news segment than the one she delivered Monday: “If you have not seen it yet, you are going to want to sit down.”

Maddow’s story began, as many of her stories do, with President Trump, this time focused on his hotel in Scotland. The Turnberry Resort, a Trump golf hotel, is located some 50 miles south of Glasgow. Not far from that resort is the charming, if small, Glasgow Prestwick Airport; with a population under 10,000, the town of Penwick is not exactly a tourist destination, and the town’s airport has teetered on the brink of financial insolvency for nearly a decade. Because Glasgow Prestwick Airport is relatively close to the Turnberry Resort, fiscal issues at the local airport would portend similar doom for the Trump hotel, which relies on potential customers who fly in and out of Prestwick.

Here, in Maddow’s telling, is the rub: The United States Air Force refueled one of their C-17 aircrafts at Prestwick Airport on a return flight from Kuwait this spring. Maddow insists that it would have been “much cheaper” to fuel up at a military base — a supposed fact that heightened her alarm about the propriety of the stop in the first place. If this seemingly strange choice in fuel station weren’t enough, the Air Force subsequently stayed overnight at the Trump-owned Turnberry Resort. Both of these actions, said Maddow, were highly unusual and enough to arouse suspicion of malfeasance. Indeed, it was proof that the “U.S. military is in on it now,” the “it” being the Trump administration’s “corruption” and violation of the emoluments clause. The event might even reveal endemic corruption in the armed forces and could serve as a broader indictment of “the U.S. military and its integrity.”

I’m glad I sat down.

Indicting “the U.S. military and its integrity” is a rather serious charge to levy against the nation’s most respected public institution, but Maddow doubled down, bringing on her show one of the co-authors of the initial story from Politico, Natasha Bertrand, who called Maddow’s summation of events “absolutely perfect.” But reporting from Byron York at the Washington Examiner has brought the “perfection,” and indeed, the basic accuracy of Maddow and Politico’s story, into question.

The Air Force replied to the Politico report by challenging several key assertions made by both Maddow and Politico. First, the Prestwick Airport was independently contracted by the Department of Defense, and both parties agreed to terms that would allow the department to refuel at “standardized prices” — precisely the going rate that Maddow scoffed would be available only at a military base. Next, the Air Force’s use of the airport adjacent to the Trump hotel does not appear to be a novel phenomenon meant, as the Politico article speculates, to “line the president’s pockets.” Instead, well before the president’s inauguration, records show that the Air Force had used the small airport 95 times in 2015 and 145 times in 2016. While the number of stops there has since increased — the Air Force reports stopping in Prestwick 259 times through August of this 2019 — it is not as though the location was unknown to the Air Force or the Department of Defense until the president roped them into a secretive money-funneling gambit. And there are strategic features that make the otherwise obscure airport in Prestwick a preferable location for refueling. From the Air Force’s statement:

Additionally, Air Mobility Command [AMC] issued a flight directive to mobility crews in June 2017 designed to increase efficiencies by standardizing routing locations, with Prestwick being among the top five locations recommended for reasons such as more favorable weather than nearby Shannon Airport, and less aircraft parking congestion than locations on the European continent that typically support AMC’s high priority airlift missions. By considering factors like these to save costs and increase operational efficiencies, Air Operations Center contingency planners have increasingly turned to Prestwick to develop route plans for lower priority contingency needs such as training, deploy/redeploy and Guard airlift missions.

York’s report at the Examiner examined documents sent by State Department inspector general Steve Linick to Congress, responding to members miffed by a presidential visit to the Turnberry Resort. The document cites lower relative costs at the Trump hotel, compared with other inns in the area. From York:

During the visit, Linick said, State rented three rooms at Turnberry for two nights. The total cost was $728. Citing invoices from the hotel, Linick said the room rate for the night was 95.06 pounds, or $121.40, per night. Linick said the State Department looked at other hotels, including the Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow, which charged 215 pounds per night; the Hilton Glasgow, which charged 249 pounds; the Hilton Glasgow Grosvenor at 229 pounds; the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow at 185 pounds; and the Raddison Blu in Glasgow at 179 pounds per night. Other State Department employees detailed to the president’s trip stayed at some of those hotels.

As York observes, “at least on the president’s trip, Turnberry was a good deal.” The Air Force, which generally makes earnest attempts to be judicious in its use of taxpayer monies, likely made their lodging decision based on similar price realities.

None of this is to condone the prudence of staying at a Trump resort in such partisan and polarized times; York notes that “the publicity surrounding the new story appears to have made the Air Force nervous.” But it’s a stretch to insist that this is a coordinated Ponzi scheme to enrich the president, with the willing and eager help of the United States Air Force. Maddow finished the segment by insisting that “if this story were fiction, “you would walk out, because it’s too blunt.” It’s possible she was too clever by half.

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