Trump Lies About Scottish Airport for No Apparent Reason

The Air Force's use of Trump hotels predates his presidency---but is still highly problematic.

The sequence of events surrounding the Air Force’s use of a Trump family hotel near a Scottish airport satisfies me that it’s not scandalous. At least, once one gets past the fact that the President of the United States owns hundreds of public-facing properties around the world, has refused to follow the convention of divesting himself of them, and thus raises huge questions of propriety whenever he, any government employee, or person having business with the US government stays there.

Eric Lipton’s NYT report “Trump Had Deal With Scotland Airport That Sent Flight Crews to His Resort” establishes that the Air Force was routinely flying in and out of that airport and staying in the hotel associated with Trump’s golf course long before he was President. And that Trump had an arrangement with the airport to send visitors to his hotel before he began his run for the White House.

Oddly, that didn’t stop Trump from lying about the situation.

On Monday, President Trump sought to tamp down a growing controversy over a stay at the resort by United States military personnel who were traveling through the airport in Scotland in March. First on Twitter and later speaking to reporters at the White House, he said he was not involved in any decision to put an Air Force flight crew at the resort, known as Trump Turnberry.

“I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!),” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.”

It’s demonstrably not true that Trump has nothing to do with the airport—although the rest does in fact appear to be true.

The government records, released through Scottish Freedom of Information law, show that the Trump organization, starting in 2014, entered a partnership with the airport to try to increase private and commercial air traffic to the region.

As part of that arrangement, the Trump Organization worked to get Trump Turnberry added to a list of hotels that the airport would routinely send aircrews to, even though the Turnberry resort is 20 miles from the airport, farther away than many other hotels, and has higher advertised prices.

But, you say, “the Trump Organization” is bigger than Donald Trump. Alas,

Mr. Trump visited Glasgow Prestwick in 2014 and promised to help increase traffic at the airport, although at the time he was largely referring to plans to drive corporate jets there and attract other commercial traffic perhaps carrying golfers on the way to his resort.

There’s nothing in Lipton’s report to indicate that there was anything untoward in the business arrangement. He promised to help route more traffic to the airport in exchange for more referrals to his far-away, expensive hotel. Well before he was even running for President.

And the Air Force, seemingly independently and coincidentally, was starting to use the airport more often and was among those being referred by their staff to Turnbury. Starting at some point in 2015—well before anyone would have reasonably foreseen a conflict of interest.

Fast-forward to the recent scandal:

It was through the arrangement with the Pentagon that a seven-person United States Air Force crew ended up staying at the Trump Turnberry in March. An Air Force C-17 military transport plane was on its way from Alaska to Kuwait when it stopped at Prestwick overnight to refuel and give the crew a break.

The crew, which consisted of active duty and national guard members from Alaska, was charged $136 per room, which was less expensive than a Marriott property’s rate of $161. And both were under the per diem rate of $166.

So, while the crew was staying at a very expensive luxury hotel, they were getting an excellent deal. Less than the government rate (which is likely unavailable overseas). Even aside from the weird arrangement between he airport and the hotel, they may well have decided to stay there given that it was significantly cheaper than the Marriott. (Although it’s my understanding that, at least among active-duty pilots, there’s a strong propensity to stay in hotels that align with one’s preferred reward points system.)

Again, aside from the elephant in the room—the President of the United States owns hotels with his name on them—-this would a non-story.

But, of course, there’s the elephant.

Lt. Gen. Jon T. Thomas, the deputy commander of the Air Force Air Mobility Command, said in an interview on Monday that the rising number of military stopovers at Prestwick was entirely based on operational demands, as the airport is in a convenient location, has 24-hour operations and offers ample aircraft parking, among other advantages. He added that the Air Force has been using Prestwick for stopovers since at least the late 1990s.

But he agreed that the decision to place Air Force crew members at a hotel owned by Mr. Trump’s family had created questions that the Defense Department needed to address. As a result, the Air Force is now reviewing policies on where crews are put up in hotels during international trips.

“Let’s make sure we are considering potential for misperception that could be created by where we billet the aircrews,” he said. “It is a reasonable ask for us to make sure we are being sensitive to misperceptions that could be formed by the American people or Congress or anyone else.”

Staying at hotels named after and whose proceeds directly benefit the Commander-in-Chief does indeed create a potential for misperception. To say the least. But, again, it seems clear that the problem here is that POTUS has a side hustle, not that the Defense Department is trying to curry favor.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. The other issue that was raised on CNN yesterday is the fact that fuel costs at a commercial airport come at a premium compared to the cost of refueling at an American military base, whether that would be somewhere else in the U.K. or in Europe.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    A nit: there is no real evidence that the Trump organization owns this or other properties. The Trump Organization is paid a fee to manage them as well as a fee to use his name, but it is extremely unlikely that it actually owns the property.

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  3. Jen says:

    I tend to disagree. A Scottish newspaper reports that the current contract allowing for refueling at that airport expires at the end of September, and they are in negotiations to renew the contract from Oct. 1 2019 – Sept. 30, 2024.

    1) There is no need for military aircraft to refuel at this random Scottish airport, when there is an Air Force base in England (I believe Lakenheath) that has been doing this for years.
    2) As noted by Doug, the Air Force is refueling at commercial rates, rather than the military rate they’d get at the AFB in England
    3) Refueling at the AFB means that overnight stays are on base. No need to put them up at Turnberry.

    This is yet another grift, wherein the US taxpayers are paying above-typical rates for fuel, lodgings, and meals for the military, all in an effort to prop up a small airport that happens to be near the President’s property, thus ensuring that it will remain open for his well-heeled customers.

    There is no way that this is okay, not under any normal set of circumstances. It might be what we’ve become accustomed to, and it’s not as bad as, say, having Secretary Ross threaten to fire NOAA employees unless they lie for the President, but it’s bad. The president shouldn’t HAVE a “side hustle” that uses taxpayer money to make certain that an airport near to his property will finally be in the black.

    I shouldn’t need to say this, but go ahead and add the “what if Obama/what if Hillary” did this to the end of it.

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  4. DrDaveT says:

    Maybe it would be easier to track the things Trump says that are actually true?

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  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Not a problem before Jan. 20, 2017.
    Big problem after Jan. 20, 2017.
    Millions of your dollars and my dollars are being funneled, by our Government, into the pockets of Trump.
    Millions of dollars are being funneled by foreign Governments into the pockets of Trump.
    And your dollars and my dollars are paying for his travel to every single one of his campaign rallies. Including the ones like El Paso, where he still hasn’t paid the local bill.
    It’s corrupt, and corruption is always wrong.
    Shame on James for going ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    1. If he’d divested this wouldn’t have become an issue. 2. Is an emolument not still an emolument even if it’s per an old agreement?

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @gVOR08: We’re in agreement. The scandal isn’t the USAF currying favor with POTUS. That’s coincidental. The scandal is that the conflict exists because Trump won’t divest per custom.

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  8. JohnMcC says:

    I actually have been wondering what James Joyner would say. Since we are in general agreement, he is wise as always.

    There is going to be so many corrupt grifts exposed after the next election that this will be as if driven like snow.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Staying at hotels named after and whose proceeds directly benefit the Commander-in-Chief does indeed create a potential for misperception.

    Excuse me, but I have a small question: Is it a misperception that the United States Air Forces are using an out of the way and underutilized airport at higher refueling costs to the US with AF personnel lodging at the president’s personal resort/golf club to his profit?

    Or is it a fact?

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  10. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: I think the scandal here is twofold: one, the lack of divestment, and two, the increased use. I find it hard to believe that it’s a sudden coincidence that the both the airport and Turnberry were struggling before Trump became POTUS and now the numbers are improving. This particular airport was an atypical stop previously, but has seen a fairly significant uptick in use since 2017. That timing cannot just be written off as coincidental.

    Trump’s resort needs this airport, and after struggling for years it’s now doing much better. As there’s nothing we can do about it, I will be interested to see if the routine use continues if Trump doesn’t win in 2020, since the new agreement will allow for refueling use through 2024.

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  11. Kit says:

    @Jen:

    I find it hard to believe that it’s a sudden coincidence that the both the airport and Turnberry were struggling before Trump became POTUS and now the numbers are improving.

    The tax returns of these companies must be public information, right? Has anyone actually reported on them? Are they making significantly more money?

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kit: Yesterday’s Polico article reported that,

    Taken together, the incidents raise the possibility that the military has helped keep Trump’s Turnberry resort afloat — the property lost $4.5 million in 2017, but revenue went up $3 million in 2018.

    Natasha Bertrand said on her twitter feed that,

    The frequency of the stops and overnight stays by the Air Force at Prestwick has increased steadily, from 95 stops and 40 overnights in 2015 to 259 stops and 220 overnights through August 2019. The Air Force couldn’t say how many of those 220 overnights were spent at Turnberry.

    ETA oooopps: Politico article

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  13. mattbernius says:

    Important side note here: It’s worth noting how well — despite all the accusations of “fake news” — the news media has been at policing itself and adding context to stories. With this example, CNN’s Spy Allegations, and Lawrence O’Donnell’s Russian allegations, we’ve seen other media outlets add context or, in the later cases, expose bad initial reporting.

    Yes, outlets haven’t initially gotten the story right (or in some cases got it wrong), but within hours or at most days, those issues have been brought to light. The fact that its happened on so few stories about the administration point out how often the press is, by and large, getting it right.

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  14. Jen says:

    @Kit: In addition to the Politico piece that @OzarkHillbilly: references, I did also see somewhere that yes, the airport itself is doing far better financially due to the increased activity. It might have been in one of the UK articles I read, I’ll see if I can track it down.

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  15. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @mattbernius:
    This.
    They are getting what they do report, correct, by and large.
    But the 4th Estate is still falling down in holding Trump accountable, and in doing so they are helping to normal his corrupt behavior.

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  16. Kit says:

    @Jen: @OzarkHillbilly: Thanks. Anything on his US properties? Hearing that his hotels have grown wildly profitable would make for a rather explosive story.

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  17. Guarneri says:

    The only problem with the Politico story was that it was not the whole story. In fact, it omitted so much important information that it hardly qualified as a story at all.

    The piece focused on a single Air Force mission, a C-17 military transport flight this year from the United States to Kuwait and back. Bertrand and Bender reported that the plane stopped at Prestwick to refuel, and also that the crew spent the night at Turnberry. According to the article, crew members said they had never stopped at Prestwick before in dozens of trips back and forth between the U.S. and Middle East.

    The article made several references to a June 21 document request sent by House Oversight Committee Democrats to the secretary of defense. The Pentagon has not yet responded to the House, Politico said.

    But committee Democrats left a number of things out of their letter. Some are available in public documents on the internet, while some came from the Air Force in response to the story.

    The first thing to note is that a public database shows the Air Force signed a contract for refuelings at Prestwick in 2016, before the Trump administration entered office. In addition, Air Force planes made many stops at Prestwick before President Trump. According to information provided by Air Force officials, planes stopped at Prestwick 95 times in 2015, 145 times in 2016, 180 times in 2017, 257 times in 2018, and 259 times through August 2019.

    Some of the flights were documented on YouTube. There are hobbyists who like to make and post videos of planes landing and taking off at various airports around the world. A search for “USAF” and “Prestwick” yields lots of videos of Air Force planes at Prestwick, many of them dating from before the start of the Trump administration. (Here is one.)

    So the stop at Prestwick might have been a first-ever for the crew described in Politico, but not for the Air Force overall. In a statement released after the Politico report, the Air Force said there are a number of reasons for using Prestwick:

    Air Force mobility aircraft, primarily C-17s, have increasingly leveraged Prestwick as a stopover location between 2015-2019 due to several key factors. Prestwick’s 24-hour-a-day operations make it a more viable option for aircraft traveling to and from the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility compared to other military stopover locations that have imposed increasingly restrictive operating hours. 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.
    In summary, the Air Force said that, besides its geographic location, Prestwick is a good choice because it “has a large parking area, is open 24/7/365, and has been contracted by DoD for fuel at standardized prices.”

    As for lodging, the Air Force noted that there were 40 overnight says in 2015, 75 stays in 2016, 116 in 2017, 208 in 2018, and 220 through August 2019. It did not specify how many were at Turnberry. (Indeed, on the single trip mentioned by Politico, the crew stayed at a Marriott on the way home from Kuwait.) Nevertheless, there is some public information about government employee stays at Turnberry.

    In July 2018, Trump visited Turnberry. After the trip, three Democratic lawmakers — Rep. Elijah Cummings and Sens. Tom Carper and Elizabeth Warren — asked the State Department to provide information on how much that cost. It took State nearly a year, but on July 22, 2019, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick responded.

    The letter from Linick to Cummings, Carper, and Warren discussed only State Department expenses, which were certainly not all of what was spent on the president’s visit. But it did include information about Turnberry.

    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.

    It appears that, at least on the president’s trip, Turnberry was a good deal.

    Carry on with the standard OTB petty commentary……

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  18. Jen says:

    @Guarneri: No one here is challenging any of that, indeed most of the comments, including the original post, acknowledge that the contract was in existence prior to the President being elected.

    I will make note of the fact, however, that the trips have increased year over year since Trump was elected, and, more importantly, he has not divested in his business ventures–which makes the increase sketchy as hell. No one has provided any explanation as to why refueling is taking place at commercial rates instead of the military rate cost taxpayers would be paying at a USAFB, located on the same island–not that far away.

    If the President no longer had any financial interest in his property in Scotland, this would be a non-story. However, as he has not divested, he profits from this setup–including the life support that is being offered to the Prestwick airport via our tax dollars.

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  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kit: The DC hotel is the only one I recall hearing of, and that to the effect that a lot of dignitaries* both foreign and domestic, both govt and private, are staying there as opposed to other hotels. I don’t recall reading a deep dive on before and after election #s.

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  20. the Q says:

    Seems this is like getting Al Capone by charging him with tax evasion. To me, compared to Trump’s other YUGE crimes, this is trivial. I mean, $136 room charges for two airmen compared to the $40K the bloated AG Barr will spend on a party at trumps DC property?????

    Hard to get apoplectic when this contract was signed in 2016. Also, the AF, like the rest of gov’t has pretty strict rules for its employees regarding per diems and lodging.

    In a way, this undercuts the media’s other numerous accurate reports on Trump’s misdeeds as idiot supporters of trump use this “crying wolf”to delegitimize the other far more egregious examples of Trump’s corruption. See above comment as exhibit A.

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  21. Jen says:

    @the Q: It doesn’t undercut the media’s efforts, every instance where the President is seeing a business benefit as a result of holding public office should be reported on; indeed, if the standard going forward is to ignore divestiture, it should be mandatory that this type of information is affirmatively reported.

    The problem is the sheer deluge of questionable/swampy/murky behavior. Reporting on it is the responsibility of the media, but what would you have them do? Institute a color scale like we used to have for terror reports, where green is a minor infraction but red is impeachable behavior?

    And, it’s not quite so financially inconsequential as you are suggesting, as I have not seen any reporting that retracts the data point that we’re paying commercial rates for fuel–this is unnecessary government waste, a thing that used to matter to conservatives. And there’s still a question of why this failing airport, which was sold for *one pound sterling* is now a standard refueling stop.

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  22. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: Why are you afraid of links and block quoting?

    Also, you may be quoting more than what is allowed under fair use, but I leave that to our hosts to decide…

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  23. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Gustopher:

    @Guarneri: Why are you afraid of links and block quoting?
    Also, you may be quoting more than what is allowed under fair use, but I leave that to our hosts to decide…

    Wait, what???

    I thought that was all his investigative work! After all, no quotes, no sources… it must be his own.

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  24. Andy says:

    @Jen:

    No one has provided any explanation as to why refueling is taking place at commercial rates instead of the military rate cost taxpayers would be paying at a USAFB, located on the same island–not that far away.

    The US military (especially the Air Force) has used commercial facilities for decades. There is nothing new or wrong with this practice and, in fact, it is necessary unless one wants to substantially increase the number of military bases overseas. Shannon Ireland is probably the best and most well-known example – tens if not hundreds of thousands of US service personnel have transited through there (I think I’ve passed through Shannon six times myself).

    Secondly, the actual fuel cost differences between Prestwick and Lakenheath are likely to be small. Why? Because fuel at Lakenheath is also contracted from local UK suppliers which is based on the regional rate. We don’t refine fuel here in the States and ship it to Lakenheath – we buy it from a British petroleum company. Without knowing the details of the specific contracts, it’s hard to say if the base price of the fuel itself is much different.

    But, of course, the base fuel price isn’t the entire picture as there are fuel storage, delivery, servicing, and other costs. Those costs also factor into how much the government actually pays to fuel aircraft and those costs are necessary for an actual apples-to-apples comparison.

    Lakenheath may have military personnel handling the fuel storage, driving the fuel trucks and fueling the actual aircraft, or the DoD may have contracted that out to a UK company (I don’t know what the case is there). That is a cost born by the DoD that isn’t reflected in the actual price of the fuel the DoD pays. At Prestwick, by contrast, the fuel storage and delivery service IS reflected in the price of the fuel the DoD pays because the airport has to pay those people and maintain the fuel infrastructure. At Lakenheath, those are all separate budgetary line items.

    Bottom line is that it’s really difficult to determine which location is actually more expensive once all the factors are considered. And I doubt anyone has tried to figure it out (my own brief searches turned up nothing).

    Also, it’s relevant to note that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is the middle-man for all fuel purchases. DoD customers (ie. military units) pay the same world-wide fuel price to DLA regardless of location, which comes out of the unit’s budget. The DLA sets this price as an average and uses a special fund to even out the differences over time. This is obviously necessary for budgetary reasons, but the point is that military units, flight crews, and mission planners don’t know what the DLA is actually paying at any particular location. So it’s not really possible for military units to “save money” by going to a different airfield because the cost to the unit budget is the same regardless.

    So decisions on where to stop for crew rest is due to operational considerations, not fuel cost. The reason why places like Shannon and Prestwick are superior to Lakenheath when it comes to air mobility flights were already mentioned in whatever it was that Guarneri quoted. Trying to shove all air traffic through Lakenheath just isn’t going to work even if there were some mystical cost savings in doing so.

    But that is all a side issue of no political importance – it’s just inside baseball into how the DoD works (and how it worked long before Trump came to office). Prestwick and why the DoD uses Prestwick really have absolutely nothing to do with President Trump.

    The issue here is DoD personnel being lodged at a Trump-owned or associated property. Personnel are reimbursed for such lodging by the US government, so, in effect, this is the US government paying a Trump-owned organization for a service. In this case, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that DoD personnel were ordered or otherwise pressured into lodging at Turnberry. And the numbers here are really small – 220 total stays in the Prestwick area so far in 2019 is insignificant even assuming that every one of those stays was at Trump’s resort which is not the case.

    So there’s no scandal here, but it is another reminder of the issues of emoluments and Trump’s business dealings bleeding over and intermixing with official government business. In this case, it likely amounts to only a few thousand dollars, but the principle is the issue, not the amount.

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  25. Gustopher says:

    @Jen: I’ll agree with you that the appearance of impropriety demands an investigation. And the Trump administration refusing to be open and transparent about it is a problem.

    I’m happy to accept a policy that keeping this airport open is good for the nation, if they are open about it. And, “good for our nation” is really broad. Keeps the locals happy and keeps some infrastructure operational that we might need in case of WWIII is fine, even if I think WWIII will be far less than 12 hours long.

    I’m firmly of the belief that no Trump property should be acceptable for reimbursement though. The appearance of impropriety causes enormous damage. And I would expect crews to stay at the same hotel, which means that junior officers are being forced to either go along with, or rebel from, senior officer’s decisions that have a political component.

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  26. Jen says:

    @Andy: That’s helpful context, thank you.

    This whole episode highlights the basic problem with this president and this administration: because they are morally bankrupt and lie about everything, everything they do is viewed with suspicion. Even things that have an explanation are questioned, because the president cannot help but lie about it.

    @Gustopher: I agree that no Trump property should be allowable for any government use, whether it’s to hold the AG’s party or board military members overnight. Regardless of rates, etc. the appearance of impropriety is there.

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  27. Norman Earp says:

    @MarkedMan: Scottish government criticized over US military use of airport https://gu.com/p/82ke4/stw#img-2 Trump meet Glasglow for Preswick deal Nov. 2014 John Sloan FAA 2/2015 and government people 2016

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