The three largest U.S. airlines presumed that President Donald Trump would take their side in a ferocious, yearslong dispute with Persian Gulf-based airlines — if they could just get his attention.
They got his attention, by way of TV ads the president saw on Fox News. But when Trump finally gathered executives from both sides of the dispute this month in the Oval Office for a heated, “Apprentice”-worthy showdown, he ultimately sided against them.
During an hour-long session, the president ribbed American Airlines CEO Doug Parker over his company’s flagging stock price, asking why it’s so low at a time when the stock market is surging. He scolded Delta Airlines, whose CEO Ed Bastian did not attend, for buying billions in planes from the European firm Airbus while Qatar Airways is buying its jets from Chicago-based Boeing Co.
And he repeatedly harped on Bastian’s absence, questioning how he could be a no-show after his airline — more than any other — had been fanning the flames of the fight.
“The president kept going back to it,” one person who attended the meeting told NBC News. “There was a lot of yelling.”
The meeting was a stark illustration of the president’s freewheeling decision-making style, particularly in areas like U.S. business where he is most confident in his own instincts.
It was also a steep blow to Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, who found himself on the losing end of a tug of war with national security adviser John Bolton, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and others in Trump’s White House.
This account draws on interviews with 10 individuals, including senior Trump administration officials, airline officials, congressional aides and others who attended or were briefed on the unusual July 18 meeting.
Those individuals, who spoke anonymously because the meeting was intended to be kept private, said nobody knew what the president would do when he sat the CEOs or their representatives from both sides of the dispute down in front of the Oval Office’s Resolute desk and asked them one by one to make their case.
For more than four years, the “Big Three” U.S. carriers — American, Delta and United Airlines — have been waging a bitter battle with Qatar Airways and two Emirati airlines over flights between the U.S. and the lucrative European market. The U.S. carriers argue that the Mideast airlines are heavily government-subsidized and are undercutting them by offering below-market fares on flights that never stop in the Middle East.
Most recently, they’ve turned their focus to Air Italy, which added new flights between Milan and the U.S. after Qatar Airways bought a 49 percent stake. The U.S. carriers say it’s a scheme to circumvent restrictions in the U.S.-Qatar “Open Skies” agreement on civil aviation.
Navarro, Trump’s hard-charging trade adviser known for his staunch protectionist views, has kept the issue alive in the White House after overseeing agreements last year to resolve previous grievances by the U.S. airlines, several administration officials said.
But as the Qataris and the U.S. airlines clashed anew this year over Air Italy, Navarro’s campaign thrust him into conflict with the rest of the White House. It drew the attention of Bolton, who enlisted Kudlow and other agencies to wrest back oversight of the issue from Navarro, people familiar with his efforts said.