Trump's personal Boeing 757 was always the crown jewel of his wealth -- the ultimate sign that he had made it. He's used it as a backdrop for sleek photo shoots, campaign rallies, VIP tours, for shots of him eating his Big Macs and KFC, plated, with a knife and fork. Trump loved to show it off -- the customized cream-colored leather seats, gilded bathrooms, the seat buckles layered in 24-karat gold.
But today it sits idle on an airport ramp in Orange County, New York, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
One engine is missing parts. The other is shrink-wrapped in plastic. The cost to fix and get it flyable could reach well into the high six-figures, a price-tag Trump doesn't appear to be dealing with right now. Though the current state of his finances aren't public, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the hospitality industry home to so many of his businesses.
A representative for the Trump Organization did not immediately return CNN's request for comment as to why the plane is not being used, nor has been fixed -- and whether or not Trump intends to get it in flying shape anytime soon.
A CNN camera crew saw Trump's plane parked on a fenced-off tarmac at the small upstate New York airport on Wednesday, about an hour and a half drive from Trump Tower. The choice to leave it outside at a northeastern airport, exposed to the elements, has baffled aviation experts who spoke with CNN. They note that it's just a few hours' flight to warmer, more arid climes. Snow, rain, and moisture can lead to metal corrosion of the airframe and the engines -- hard to detect, and, in severe cases, catastrophic. Large airplanes are typically stored for long stretches of time in the desert southwest, where the dry climate makes corrosion nearly impossible.
Trump rarely, if ever, admits to losing power. With the 757 apparently out of commission, Trump is left with his much smaller corporate jet, at least for now. According to flight data, Trump's 1997 Cessna 750 Citation X has been in semi-regular rotation for the last few months, often flying between Palm Beach International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York.
It was this plane Trump flew on when he made his first post-presidency trip back to Manhattan earlier this month. "The small jet isn't his favorite," says a former White House official who frequently flew with Trump on both planes. With just eight seats, the Citation such as the one Trump is using, is a tighter squeeze and far less luxe than the 757."It also doesn't have his name on the outside," the source said, noting the gigantic Trump name that the 757 bears across its front section. The Citation does have a small Trump family crest on the fuselage. That's a downgrade for a man who likes to paint his surname on just about everything he owns, from hotels to bottles of wine.
Plane as campaign draw
When Donald Trump bought the used Boeing 757 airplane in 2010 from the late Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, it swiftly became his favorite toy, as he liked to tell friends. Though it was already almost twenty years old, for the next decade, Trump lauded his plane. He was picky about who got to fly on it, where they would sit and how they could move about, says another frequent flier. None of the regular travelers were willing to speak on the record for fear of retribution.
In 2015, just two months prior to announcing his initial candidacy for President, Trump invited some journalists in Iowa aboard for an impromptu press conference -- then chastised them for almost messing up his baby.
"There's one guy very dangerous with that one camera. I'm talking and I'm watching that camera which is about this far from the ceiling, knowing that my day is going to be ruined if they ruin the ceiling," said Trump according to a Des Moines Register report.
Later, a journalist dropped a piece of equipment onto one of the plane's specially designed mahogany coffee tables. When the journalist apologized, Trump said, "You're sorry? I'm sorry, too."
When he hit the campaign trail in earnest, the 757, aka "Trump Force One," became as much a promotional ploy as billboards or TV ads. Look how successful I am-- was the message Trump was sending to voters, sometimes parking it behind the stage at his rallies.
Trump's flash-and-cash boasting worked all the way to the White House, with many of his supporters lured by the informercial-like, almost hypnotic reel of planes, limos, homes, glamorous women, gold, and quasi-celebrity. His gilded, high-flying brand may be the most valuable thing he owns. The New York Times found his personal brand strategy to be "the most successful part of the Trump business," as part of their September review of Trump tax returns.
A money suck
But, like many Trump accoutrements crafted for the purpose of marketing, the reality of the giant jet was different behind the scenes. It was a money suck, a plane past its prime with decaying mechanics and exorbitant storage fees.
"Flying that thing was so expensive," says the former senior official. "I don't think people realized that just to get it up in the air and make one stop was literally tens of thousands of dollars."
The cost to fly a Boeing 757 is about $15,000 to $18,000 per hour, according to CNN aviation analyst David Soucie. But that's when the plane can actually fly. Trump's 757 is nowhere near flight ready, according to an experienced pilot who saw it this week. The source declined to be identified.
"It's an older engine and parts availability is becoming a challenge so operating costs go up significantly," says Soucie. "Most airlines are retiring the 757 since more cost-effective models are now available."
During the presidential campaign, Trump talked up the powerful Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engines on his 757, saying he personally insisted on having the 500-mph engines installed. "They're special, they're really popular, the most popular," said Trump in a 2013 documentary about the plane. In reality, the engines are standard on this particular model of Boeing 757.
Soucie says right now, at least one of the plane's Rolls-Royce engines appears in need of major maintenance. "Fixing one of those engines would easily cost six figures," he says.
The life of a jet engine is limited by the hours in operation and what's called cycles—a measure of how many times an engine is turned on. Once the engine reaches a number of hours or cycles predetermined by manufacturer and the federal regulators, an inspection of the engine's critical "hot section" becomes required by law.
Before Trump purchased it from Paul Allen, the plane served as a commercial airliner in Mexico in the 1990s, according to a 2016 Times story on the plane.
"If the wear is serious, that could lead to replacing the engine and that could cost up to a million dollars," says Soucie.
The pricey extravagance of the jet may now be too much for Trump's finances to handle. His net worth has taken a tumble over the last few years. Trump is personally liable for debts and loans totaling $421 million, according to the New York Times reporting. Most of that debt comes due in the next four years. Some of his best-known business ventures report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year, according to the Times. That includes golf courses that have racked up at least $315 million in losses over the past two decades. The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
A Bloomberg News report this week estimates that Trump's net worth has fallen by $700 million since February 2016, from $3 billion to $2.3 billion.
Trump could use money in his political action committees to pay for the plane upgrades, or other expenses, experts say. "PACs are often used as slush funds," said Paul S. Ryan, an expert on campaign finance and a top lawyer at Common Cause, a good governance non-profit.
"Campaign finance law doesn't require PAC money to be used for political purposes, leaving open the possibility that Trump could use PAC funds to pay for private plane repairs."
The disclosures for Trump's newest PACs aren't due for some time, so it's unclear if he has spent any of that money on maintaining the plane.
But he has used campaign money in the past for travel. When running for president in 2016, for example, Trump used his campaign funds to pay travel expenses to a Trump-owned entity called Tag Air. In all, he spent $8.7 million with Tag Air in that cycle, according to a CNN tally at the time.
Trump could always just sell the plane. It's what he typically does with spare pieces of real estate, including a home adjacent to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, which just this month listed for $49 million, $31 million more than what he paid for it in 2018. But unlike real estate, planes are depreciating assets, no matter how much gold plating they contain, and Trump's 757 is not worth nearly what it was when it rolled off the assembly line in 1991.
The 2013 Trump-sanctioned documentary about the plane says Trump paid $100 million for it. Even if he paid far less than that, similar 757's are currently up for sale at a market price of about $7 million - $10 million.
Fabrics from Paris
Regardless of what he paid for it, Trump didn't cut corners on customizing his new plane.
"He was very involved in the design," says Eric Roth, president of Long Island-based International Jet Interiors, a company that outfits the private jets of some of the world's wealthiest individuals. "We met a number of times to go over exactly what he wanted."
It was Roth whom Trump initially contacted when he discovered Allen's plane was up for sale. "I flew out to Redmond, Washington, and inspected it, and told him what I thought," says Roth, who got to work on the six-month overhaul to deck it out almost immediately after Trump closed on the purchase in 2010.
A standard 757 seats about 228 passengers; Trump's was tricked out for just 43, with a master bedroom, guest suite, dining room, VIP area and galley. "Anything metal on that plane's interior -- lights, seat buckles, handles, latches, knobs -- we did in 24-karat gold plating," says Roth, adding the price for that alone came to around a "quarter million."
Roth said he and Trump discussed "what will make this fitting for Donald Trump," and "how do we make it regal?" They landed on cremes and gold tones, and mahogany and suede paneling.
"He went with very classic materials and designs, things that are timeless," says Roth.
The fabrics, which Roth described as "more formal," were flown in from Paris. The Trump family crest was embroidered into the headrests of the seats with gold thread. Roth said Melania Trump had nothing to do with the design and décor of the plane. It was Trump's previous personal aircraft, a 41-year-old Boeing 727 he put up for sale in 2009, that then-Melania Knauss used as a backdrop for her British GQ magazine spread, with the infamous photograph of her lying nude on a rug on one of the jet's banquettes.
The sale of the 727 paved the way for the purchase of the 757; in 2010, Trump's popularity via "The Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice" was peaking. He wanted a private plane commensurate with his level of success.
Trump certainly doesn't need the 757 to get around. the smaller, lighter Citation would actually make it easier for him to slip in and out of smaller, more private airports. The Citation is also faster and cheaper to operate than a 757. An aircraft charter broker tells CNN the smaller Trump plane would cost about $5,000 per hour to fly.
Thus, the fuel and crew and such are significantly lighter in terms of financial responsibility, the footprint a better fit for someone who may be tightening purse strings.
But Trump has never really been a less-is-more kind of guy.