How Donald Trump gave away his secret war zone trip
- The US president’s trip to Iraq was supposed to be a surprise. But the White House couldn’t keep the sensitive trip a secret for long
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Andrew Restuccia on politico.com on December 26, 2018.
The tweets stopped and soon the jig was up.
US President Donald Trump’s trip to Iraq this week, his first to a war zone as president, was supposed to be a surprise. But the White House couldn’t keep the sensitive trip a secret for long.
After tweeting more than three dozen times over the last four days, Trump ceased his rapid-fire online missives on Tuesday night.
By Wednesday, the president was nowhere to be found, without any scheduled public events. There was no uniformed Marine standing outside the West Wing, normally an obvious signal that the president is in the Oval Office.
White House officials went silent. Soon, amateur aircraft watchers were tracking a Boeing VC-25, the military plane that serves as Air Force One, flying over Europe.
It wasn't the first time aviation obsessives had flagged possible signals that Trump might be headed to a war zone.
But it was the first time it had come in conjunction with Trump's Twitter feed suddenly going dark.
Past administrations have taken extreme measures to keep presidential trips to war zones secret, fearing serious security risks if they’re made public.
Journalists travelling on the trips must agree to strict embargoes barring them from reporting any details until the president is out of harm’s way.
Often, the trips are so hush-hush that reporters are only allowed to tell their spouse and one editor that they are on the way to a war zone, where they sometimes have to rely on satellite phones to relay the news back to Washington.
Is Trump on a surprise visit to Afghanistan? Turkey? Flight trackers show that one of two planes used for Air Force One (92-9000/VC-25) using what appears to be a fake HEXCODE of AE47C4, departed Andrews Air Force base at midnight. Transponders changed or disabled near Romania. pic.twitter.com/JtVzEPUoLv
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) December 26, 2018
But the age of secret presidential jet-setting is rapidly coming to an end, as amateur flight trackers sent news of unidentified military aircraft criss-crossing the globe in real time via Twitter.
And while the White House prevented major news outlets from publishing stories about the trip before they made an official announcement, it couldn't stop rampant online speculation.
According to the fanatic community of flight trackers, Trump appeared to have taken off from Joint Base Andrews around midnight on Christmas on a Boeing VC-25A, one of the modified Boeing 747s that serves as Air Force One.
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The plane was not using the tradition Air Force One call sign, but was instead dubbed RCH358. “Reach” is a call sign often used by military cargo planes.
An aircraft spotter in the United Kingdom spotted the trademark 747 Wednesday morning, and snapped a photo.
CivMilAir, a Twitter account that tracks military aircraft, retweeted the image, setting off a flurry of speculation among plane watchers worldwide.
Reported over the UK earlier today. Callsign & unknown hex confirmed on my own receiver logs.
'RCH358' VC-25 USAF - over Yorkshire - taken from Chapeltown South Yorks Boxing Day 2018https://t.co/9sYjOnIcIG @ETEJSpotter pic.twitter.com/wWpp4FPpz8
— CivMilAir (@CivMilAir) December 26, 2018
Further complicating the efforts is a president who can’t seem to keep a secret. Trump has been broadcasting the possibility of an upcoming trip to a war zone for weeks, both in public and in private.
“No, I’m going to a war zone,” Trump shot back at a reporter last month when he was asked whether he was afraid to make such a trip.
He told The Washington Post in a November interview that he would make the trip “at the right time,” perhaps even before Christmas.
The prospect of a surprise trip to Iraq or Afghanistan has kept the White House press corps on edge for weeks.
At one point, rumours circulated that Trump had ditched reporters and departed for a war zone while he was alleged to be golfing at his Mar-a-Lago club over the Thanksgiving holiday.
And there were whispers that the president was tacking on a covert trip to Iraq or Afghanistan on his return trip from the G20 in Argentina. Both sets of rumours turned out to be false.
Despite all the rumours, the specifics of Trump’s trip were closely held.
Even some White House aides were unaware of the specifics of Trump’s trip. The trip was kept off the White House’s official travel log, but by Wednesday afternoon, West Wing aides got word that the president was en route to an unknown destination and would not return to Washington until Friday, according to one of those aides.
The surprise trip occurs on the fifth day of a government shutdown, with several federal agencies shuttered and neither the president nor congressional Democrats have given any indication they are any closer to reaching a deal to reopening the government than when it began.
Presidential trip planners have for years fought back against leaks.
Ahead of then-President Barack Obama’s surprise 2012 trip to Afghanistan, the White House actually released a fake public schedule packed with West Wing meetings to throw reporters off the trail.
But that didn’t stop an Afghan news station from reporting that Obama had arrived in Kabul, spurring a few US new outlets to do quick write-ups on the trip.
A Drudge banner blared “Where is Obama?”
The White House and US embassy in the country quickly tried to kill the reports, denying that Obama was in Afghanistan.
The US news organisations that had picked up the Afghan news agreed to pull their pieces until the White House officially announced the trip.
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith, who had retweeted rumours of the news, even agreed to post a denial from the White House on Twitter.
He later explained: “Like most news organisations, we will typically defer to the White House’s judgment on true security risks. In this case, we had no original reporting on the subject, and it didn’t seem like right moment to have an abstract argument about the contemporary media ecosystem, though I think it’s getting harder and harder to unring these bells.”
Given the quick unveiling of Trump’s Iraq trip on Wednesday, Smith’s comments now seem prophetic.
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.