A Leak-Prone White House Finally Manages to Keep a Secret

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — It may be the leakiest White House in history. The news media has unearthed details of President Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, his candid assessments of senior aides and his private daily schedules.

So when Mr. Trump pulled off an unannounced trip to an American air base here on Thanksgiving Day — a secret that held until the White House lifted a news embargo from Afghanistan — his aides were delighted. In an information-saturated era of Twitter, text messages and aircraft tracking websites, the president had traveled halfway around the world undetected in perhaps the world’s most recognizable airplane.

Mr. Trump himself did not comment on the secrecy of the mission. But he seemed both startled and pleased with the distance he had crossed in a single 13-hour flight.

“It’s a long flight,” he said before sitting down with soldiers in a dining hall, where many had already finished their Thanksgiving meals. “That is a longer flight than you told me about,” he joked to Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, a regular visitor to Afghanistan who accompanied the president.

Speaking later to hundreds of troops gathered in an airplane hangar, he was more precise: “We flew 8,331 miles to be here,” Mr. Trump said.

By contrast, when the president visited Iraq last December, his cover was blown en route. On such trips, Air Force One departs and lands under darkness, as it did on Thursday. But that December, it was daylight when Mr. Trump passed over England, where a self-described “aviation nut” in Chapeltown saw a shiny object in the sky and posted a photograph of the plane online. Internet sleuths, aided by publicly available aircraft tracking data, quickly determined that Air Force One was headed to the Middle East.

(Daylight over England seems an especially nettlesome threat to operational security: During a secret 2003 flight carrying President George W. Bush to Iraq, a British pilot is said to have spotted the president’s plane flying nearby and asked the control tower, “Is that Air Force One?” When told that he had seen a Gulfstream V, a much smaller aircraft, the pilot laughed and replied faux-credulously, “O.K., London.”)

Such disclosures are a nightmare for the Secret Service, and can be a cause for aborting a trip. While American military bases are supremely difficult to infiltrate, they are vulnerable to rockets and mortar shells fired from afar. In September 2017, when the defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, stopped at Kabul’s international airport, the Taliban mounted a rocket attack targeting his military plane. (Mr. Mattis himself was never in danger.)

The need for an American president to slip furtively into Iraq or Afghanistan under the cover of darkness has been cited as an embarrassing reminder that American military might, and huge expenditures, had failed to secure those countries. But the Trump White House, not known for its organizational prowess, reveled in Thursday’s well-executed intrigue. On Friday night, its press office released dramatic photos showing Mr. Trump disembarking from his darkened airplane and walking in silhouette across the tarmac.

Thirteen reporters and photographers joined Mr. Trump on his trip, but the White House took extreme precautions to ensure that no one revealed his destination. Journalists, instructed to assemble on the roof of a parking garage in the capital on Wednesday evening, were driven to Joint Base Andrews near Washington, where Secret Service agents confiscated their cellphones and other devices capable of transmitting their location. White House officials would not confirm Mr. Trump’s destination until after Air Force One had departed.

Even the president surrendered his phone. Cognizant that a long absence from Twitter was sure to draw notice and arouse suspicions about Mr. Trump’s activities, the White House posted from his account while he was in the air.

Earlier that evening, Mr. Trump had stolen out of Palm Beach, Fla., where his official public schedule had him spending Thanksgiving at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Leaving behind the modified 747 with blue-and-white markings known as Air Force One when the president is on it, Mr. Trump secretly flew to Washington and boarded a twin version of the plane, which had been hidden from public view in a giant hangar that reporters were prohibited from photographing. In the darkness of the night, Air Force One departed with shades drawn and running lights off.

The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, would not say whether an early disclosure of Mr. Trump’s itinerary would have forced a change in plans but noted that maintaining an embargo was vital for security reasons. In keeping with the practice of past administrations, the White House lifted the embargo only after the president had been in Afghanistan for nearly three hours and was preparing to depart.

“For this very unique trip, it was very important to me that the traveling pool had every opportunity to break the news,” Ms. Grisham said.

On this trip, Mr. Trump himself seemed less fazed by the drama and intrigue than he had been during his Iraq adventure last year, when he admitted to “concerns for the institution of the presidency” and for the safety of his wife, Melania Trump, who had joined him. The first lady stayed home for this week’s visit to Afghanistan, where Mr. Trump boasted of American military successes and suggested that the Taliban was eager to make a peace deal.

“If you would have seen what we had to go through, with the darkened plane with all windows closed, with no lights on whatsoever, anywhere, pitch black,” Mr. Trump said in Iraq. “I’ve never seen that, been on many airplanes, all types and shapes and sizes, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He made no such observations during his remarks to reporters and troops here. The only real concern he expressed about his trip — offered during a speech to American and what he called “Afghanistanian” troops praising them as “the toughest, strongest, best and bravest warriors” — was the nature of his Thanksgiving meal.

“I sat down. I had a gorgeous piece of turkey. And I was all set to go, and I had some of the mashed potatoes,” Mr. Trump said of his dinner with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley.

“And I never got to the turkey, because General Milley said, ‘Come on over, sir. Let’s take some pictures,’” he continued. “I never got to my turkey. It’s the first time in Thanksgiving that I’ve never had anything called turkey.”

“I should have started with that, instead of the mashed potatoes,” Mr. Trump said, in a rare admission of fallibility. “I made a mistake.”

Mr. Trump also noted with some bemusement that General Milley, who assumed his job in September, is a warrior-scholar — a type he has clashed with in the form of Mr. Mattis and H.R. McMaster, whom he fired as his second national security adviser.

“You know, he went to Princeton,” the president said, citing the general’s Ivy League credentials. “And he went to Columbia. I’m not sure, was that a good thing or a bad? I don’t know. Did I like it or not?” He added: “He’s an academic. I can’t believe it. He’s a great gentleman.”

Once Mr. Trump’s trip had been reported publicly, the veil of secrecy was lifted. But the unusual nature of his travel was not yet finished. When Air Force One landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for refueling, Mr. Trump was met by the plane’s duplicate, which had flown in from Florida while Mr. Trump was still in Afghanistan.

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the change saved time by eliminating the need for Mr. Trump to wait for the first plane to refuel, which can take as long as two hours. The president always has a backup plane on hand during foreign travel, he said.

Still, the unusual — and likely expensive — maneuver ensured an earlier Florida arrival time for Mr. Trump, who landed in West Palm Beach shortly after 7 a.m. Eastern time. After a brief stop at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Mr. Trump proceeded to his nearby golf club for a full day on the links.

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