NeverTrumpers are allegedly trying to convince President Donald Trump that he does not need to enforce Open Skies agreements that protect American air carriers, but the nation’s largest airlines and 300 Members of Congress are crying foul.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Open Skies agreements with other nations eliminate “government involvement in airline decision-making about routes, capacity and pricing in international markets.” Some 120 such agreements currently exist between the United States and other nations.
Breitbart News reported last year on how Middle Eastern airlines, including Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, are heavily subsidized by their foreign governments—for example, United Arab Emirates (UAE) subsidizes both of those carriers)—in apparent violation of Open Skies executive agreements that those nations have made with the United States. That report details how Trump MAGA supporters are encouraging President Trump to enforce those agreements, arguing that illegal foreign subsidies going to foreign competitors hurts American companies and American workers.
The foreign governments of UAE and Qatar appear to have funneled $52 billion into their airlines, in the form of zero-interest loans with no obligation to repay, government grants, and outright infusions of capital. Because money is fungible, these funds permit those airlines to operate at reduced prices that U.S. carriers cannot match, making those competing routes unprofitable for American companies.
But a group calling itself U.S. Airlines for Open Skies says that these agreements are working fine. It also says that any foreign government involvement is comparable to the sort of protections American carriers receive from the U.S. government, such as bankruptcy protection or previous bailouts.
Critics beg to differ, saying that interventions to prevent the collapse of a company are different from massive injections into stable companies to give them a competitive edge. Whether or not the UAE and Qatar subsidies are violations of Open Skies turns on which argument is legally correct.
The advocacy group U.S. Airlines for Open Skies appears allied with people from U.S. Travel, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as an advocate for all components of the travel industry.
U.S. Travel President Roger Dow is defending the status quo—which includes the allegedly illegal subsidies—saying, “These policies further enable air service that connects America to underserved regions of the world where practically no competition exists.”
This coalition is interesting for a couple reasons. First, the Air Line Pilots Association—which represents 55,000 pilots—sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing U.S. Travel of lobbying on behalf of one or more of these foreign governments, without first registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Another reason this group is interesting is that this campaign is being driven by NeverTrumpers, not just at U.S. Travel, but at Hamilton Place Strategies as well. The latter is a public-relations firm whose managing director, Michael Steel, has attacked President Trump with language usually seen from the far left.
Steel has called President Trump “a depraved clown holding the Republican Party hostage.” Hardly the most diplomatic approach to take with a sitting president you are trying to persuade not to enforce U.S. trade agreements.
The ardently NeverTrump Steel went on to accuse the president of “hateful rhetoric, counter-productive policy proposals, and the deplorable racism and anti-Semitism of some of his supporters.”
He made that comment during the campaign, before President Trump took office, and then, as the president expressed heartfelt support for those serving in the military and law enforcement, signed the largest and most pro-business tax cuts in 30 years, and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Few reasonable Americans would regard those presidential actions as examples of hate, bad policy, and anti-Semitism.
Another firm principal, Tony Fratto, has likewise been tagged as a leading NeverTrumper, calling the president “fundamentally unstable.” Before the election, Fratto went so far to say that it would be “unforgiveable” for a Republican to vote for Trump.
Still another Hamilton agent, Andrea Christianson, on December 12, 2017, acting as a spokeswoman for U.S. Airlines for Open Skies, denied that the foreign money disbursements are violations at all. “We are confident further investigation by the Trump administration will show the claims for what they are: a political ploy to protect [the largest American air carriers] from competition and limit choice for U.S. travelers,” she added.
Back at U.S. Travel, one of its executive vice presidents, Jonathan Grella, tweeted that President Trump is an “illegitimate leader” and a “nasty bully,” and uses the #NeverTrump hashtag in his tweets.
Trump is an illegitimate leader with a legit following. #nevertrump
— ✈Jon Grella 🇺🇸 (@JonathanGrella) March 3, 2016
If you've ever been treated rudely, how can you endorse a nasty bully as our chief role model? #nevertrump
— ✈Jon Grella 🇺🇸 (@JonathanGrella) March 3, 2016
This cadre of NeverTrumpers are suggesting that the status quo—established in its current form during the Obama era—should be preserved. These personalities and their NeverTrump rhetoric might seem counterproductive for people who are trying to persuade President Trump not to respond to billions in foreign cash infusions that certainly appear to be subsidies, especially when there is no clear argument as to why these are not illegal subsidies of foreign companies that are competing against American companies.
Former Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker penned a piece this month for the Des Moines Register quoting the State Department’s position on how Open Skies—when properly enforced—benefit American companies and workers, which would seem to make those agreements a valuable part of the president’s America First agenda.
“Open Skies agreements have vastly expanded international passenger and cargo flights to and from the United States, promoting increased travel and trade, enhanced productivity and spurring high-quality job opportunities and economic growth,” Spiker quotes the State Department as explaining.
Spiker’s perspective is important because he, too, was a critic of Donald Trump before the billionaire businessman was elected to the highest office in the land. Yet while the comments above would suggest the writer would be calling for enforcement, Spiker is actually opposing a MAGA agenda on this issue, aligning himself with foreign interests over American industries and workers.
“You can bet that when Big Business and Big Labor hire high-powered Washington lobbyists, consumers like us stand to lose big,” the Iowa Republican says. “Don’t let Obama and Clinton allies pull one over on President Trump and his domestic policy team.”
Advocates for enforcing America’s Open Skies agreements formed the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies in response to this situation. This group consists of Delta Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, and the unions representing many of the employees of those companies. This partnership insists on the illegality of these billions in subsidies, and calls for presidential action.
U.S. Travel’s Grella writes of the arguments made by United, Delta, and American Airlines, “That could not be farther from the truth,” essentially accusing the major U.S. airlines of whining, and citing those airlines’ recent financial success as proof that the status quo is great for everyone.
“Politically, this issue appears to be a rare unifier—leaders on both sides of the aisle seem content to let the Big Three shout into the proverbial void,” Grella adds.
The numbers seem to prove the opposite of Grella’s claim. The 300+ federal lawmakers calling for enforcement action in this situation range from conservative heroes like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), to establishment Republicans like Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH). The group is in fact bipartisan, including leftwing Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).
In other words, this issue may be a “rare unifier”—but if so, unifying in favor of United, Delta, American, and the rest of the Partnership for Open and Fair Skies, not against them.
These accusations are serious, and the U.S. government has not made public any official determination whether the foreign nations’ billions are in violation of the Open Skies agreements. But in any event, the outspoken NeverTrump hostility of the people pushing to maintain the status quo is unlikely to earn them any goodwill as they make their case.
Ken Klukowski is senior legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.