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Inside Trump's Air Force One: 'It's like being held captive'

Updated 4:22 AM ET, Sat May 25, 2019

Washington (CNN) - President Donald Trump's visit to Tokyo this weekend kicks off a summer of global jet-setting that takes him to five separate countries -- and confines him to the presidential aircraft for more than 80 hours flying overseas.

Not always an eager traveler, Trump has complained in the past about the pace of his foreign travel or the accommodations arranged for him abroad. It's his aides, however, who sometimes dread boarding Air Force One for a lengthy flight overseas, knowing full well the boss will make little use of the bed wedged into the nose of the plane.

"It's like being held captive," one official said of traveling with the President on Air Force One.

Current and former officials have described White House trips as grueling endeavors accompanied by long hours, but several privately said the flights overseas are easily the worst. The duration can stretch nearly 20 hours. Sleeping space is limited. The televisions are streaming Fox News constantly. And if the headlines flashing across the bottom of the screen are unfavorable to their boss, aides know it's time to buckle up for a turbulent ride.

The President boarded Air Force One Friday for the 14-hour flight to Tokyo, and his staff were gearing up for a particularly hellish ride. An event the previous day was supposed to focus on relief for farmers who have been hurt by tariffs, but it quickly devolved into a venting session for Trump, who called the Democratic House speaker "crazy" and said Democrats were trying to inflict a "thousand stabs" on him.

"Keep stabbing," he said in the Roosevelt Room, while surrounded by farmers in cowboy hats.

This account is based on interviews with five current and former officials who have traveled with the President on Air Force One. Trump is expected to notch 36,000 miles of travel this summer, including two trips each to Japan and Europe.

Once sought-after, now dreaded

When Trump first took office, staffers clamored to travel on overseas trips. But now, in the third year of his presidency, several officials said they do their best to avoid staffing the trips because of the chaotic nature that typically accompanies them.

During international flights, Trump typically remains in the front cabin. He does four things, the current and former aides said: eats, watches television or reads newspapers, talks with staff and calls friends and allies back home as he zips away into foreign skies.

Trump will spend hours reviewing cable news coverage recorded on a TiVo-like device or sifting through cardboard boxes of newspapers and magazines that have been lugged aboard. He'll summon sleeping staffers to his office at moments the rest of the plane is dark, impatient to discuss his upcoming meetings or devise a response to something he saw in the media.

Trump has long insisted that he is treated unfairly by the news media, and if he sees something on television that bothers him -- "which he invariably will," one official quipped -- he instructs his staff to fix it, no matter if they are at the White House or flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Often, instead of looking over his remarks for upcoming bilateral meetings or paging through a briefing book, the President will fixate on the negative headline that day, griping that none of his predecessors has been through such treatment.

'He will not go to sleep'

Once, when a staffer went to catch a few hours of shut-eye before landing, the President sent another aide to come wake them so he could discuss a matter that was on his mind.

"He will not go to sleep," said one person.

Trump has taken a sleeping pill occasionally, his doctor told reporters last year. But he never sleeps much -- four or five hours per night at the White House -- and sleeps even less on his plane, according to people who travel with him. Instead, he will hold court for hours on end, despite staffers encouraging him to join first lady Melania Trump in the private cabin and get some rest. And the chit chat is not always business -- the President will quiz staffers about sports or catch up on gossip.

In any administration, long overseas trips are arduous undertakings that often require long jet-lagged hours with little sleep. Aside from the President's own bedroom, Air Force One is not fitted with the type of lie-flat seats that are now commonplace in commercial business classes.

When staffers can sleep, finding space is a problem. With no designated sleeping spots, they claim miniature couches or lean back in office chairs and prop their feet up on the desk. Some spread out on the floors of conference rooms or on leather benches along the side of the plane, and more seasoned staffers have learned to bring yoga mats to soften the floor.

Minimizing time abroad

After two marathon overseas trips in the first year of his presidency, Trump has scaled back his foreign travel to one or two countries at a time, packing meetings and events into a few days to minimize the time he spends abroad.

Trump's schedule rarely includes meetings that begin as soon as he arrives into a new country. Instead, he prefers to arrive at his destination and head directly to his hotel, even for a few hours. While past presidents preferred to fly overnight and waste precious few waking hours in transit, Trump often arrives to his destination at night and begins his talks the next day.

Aides and friends describe him as an impatient traveler, one who does not particularly relish experiencing foreign cultures and would prefer instead to be sleeping in his own bed.

Part of his concern at remaining out of the country for too long is feeling detached from the political conversation back home, people who have discussed the matter with him say. That has only been aggravated by a pattern of major developments in the various investigations swirling around Trump breaking while he is abroad. In between meetings with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, earlier this year, Trump stewed about his former attorney Michael Cohen as highlights from his Capitol Hill testimony played on loop.

He's cut trips short at the last moment, as he did in Singapore last year after meeting Kim. And he's caused scrambling among staffers as he demands changes to schedules that have long been planned and agreed to.

Comfort and style

A hotelier by trade, Trump has on more than one occasion berated staff for lodging he deemed inadequate, according to people familiar with the matter. After he discovered to his displeasure on an early foreign trip that his beloved Fox News was not available in his foreign hotel, the White House Communications Agency arranged for a streaming service that would allow him to keep up with his favorite programs. He typically asks for multiple televisions in his room, depending on the size of the space, one source said.

And before some of his earlier trips as President, advance teams ensured that host governments worked to avoid presenting the President with food that might seem challenging, such as fish with the head still attached.

Trump prefers trips where he is the guest of honor instead of the large summit meetings that comprise chunks of any US president's calendar. At the yearly G7 and G20 gatherings, Trump has felt ganged up on by other leaders, according to administration officials.

Far preferable for Trump are the state visits bestowed by politicians hoping to fete a president susceptible to flattery.

That will be the order of the day in Tokyo this weekend, when Trump is paying the first state visit after the ascension of a new emperor. And it will repeat itself the following week when he travels to London for a long-delayed state visit at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth.

Trump has viewed both as a special privilege, according to administration officials, though Japanese officials and analysts said any US president would likely have been afforded Emperor Naruhito's inaugural state visit given the importance of Japan's relationship with the United States.

Still, Trump views the trips as more important ventures than a later stop this summer at the G20, also in Japan, though he's heightened interest in that event by scheduling talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines and tacking on a visit to Seoul afterward.

The White House, meanwhile, hasn't announced whether Trump will attend this year's G7, held in coastal France. He wavered on participating in last year's hosted by Canada.


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