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Why Donald Trump Was Obsessed with Navy’s New Aircraft Carrier

USS Gerald R. Ford Shock Trials
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 29, 2019) USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. Ford is at sea conducting sea trials following the in port portion of its 15 month post-shakedown availability. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Connor Loessin)

Former President Donald Trump certainly did spend a lot of money on the US military during his four years in office. However, there was one certain warship that caught his attention more than any other: The USS Gerald R. Ford – When Donald Trump was president, he liked to complain regularly about the US Navy’s new $13 billion aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, regularly fixating on “the look” of the large ship, Trump’s former defense secretary, Mark Esper, recalls in his new book.

In “A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times,” Esper writes that Trump often griped about the “overpriced” and “broken” $13 billion carrier, complaining that its catapults didn’t work and its elevators were broken. The former president also said that the command center, commonly known as the island, was positioned too far back and not close enough to the middle of the carrier.

The island “looks really bad – it’s stupid,” Trump said, according to Esper, who added that the former president proposed moving the structure closer to the middle of the ship, which would have been a costly and largely pointless endeavor.

“Peril,” a book written by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa that came out last year, also noted the former president’s frequent complaints about the carrier Ford, particularly the placement of the island.

The book said that Navy officers attempted to explain to the president that the command center was positioned the way it is to better facilitate aircraft operations, but Trump insisted that “it just doesn’t look right,” stating he has “an eye for aesthetics.”

Esper explained in his book that “the most important thing always seemed to be about the image and ‘the look.'” He wrote that Trump said of the Ford that “it looks horrible.”

The former defense chief wrote that he recalls the president calling US ships “ugly” on multiple occasions, sometimes comparing them to Russian and Italian models he claimed “look nicer, sleeker, like a real ship” as he flipped through pictures of foreign ships.

Esper responded to Trump’s gripes by saying, “Our ships are built to fight and win, not win beauty contests; we prize function over form.” He wrote that Trump did not seem happy with this answer.

Trump, who Esper says considered scrapping plans to purchase additional Ford-class ships, said the carrier “will never work.”

Trump complained – both privately and sometimes in public – about the ship’s catapult system, which uses electrical currents to catapult aircraft off the flight deck. The electromagnetic aircraft launch system, or EMALS, is new technology intended as an improvement over the older steam catapults on the Nimitz-class carriers.

Although the new system had experienced problems during its development, it was designed to be safer, more effective, and more efficient than the older catapults. Despite this, Trump claimed throughout his presidency that the new tech was too complex, at one point stating “you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.”

Esper wrote that Trump also complained about the Ford’s Advanced Weapon Elevators, claiming they would break if exposed to water.

Underwater Aircraft Carrier

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) underway on its own power for the first time. The first-of-class ship — the first new U.S. aircraft carrier design in 40 years — spent several days conducting builder’s sea trials, a comprehensive test of many of the ship’s key systems and technologies.

Ford-class Aircraft Carrier

200604-N-QI093-1142
ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 4, 2020) The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier have operated together underway. Gerald R. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains at sea in the Atlantic Ocean as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ruben Reed/Released

Allies

The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations, and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains at sea in the Atlantic as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Riley McDowell)

Ford-class

The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations, and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains at sea in the Atlantic as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Riley McDowell)

“One glass of sea water. Just one. That’s all it will take. Once it splashes those elevators they’ll never work,” Trump said according to the new book, citing his experience in real estate industry.

While the elevators, which are used to move weapons and ammunition around the ship, have experienced some integration challenges and delays, they are designed to operate aboard naval vessels at sea.

“I had visited the Ford in Norfolk early in my tenure – and tried to explain the issues to the president many times,” Esper wrote in his book. “He listened but never heard.”

The first-in-class Ford is expected to finally, after significant delays and cost overruns, be ready for naval operations this year. Three other Ford-class carriers, the John F. Kennedy, Enterprise, and Doris Miller, are in various stages of development and construction.

Julie Coleman is a fellow on the Military/Defense team at Insider. She’s previously worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Post, NY1, Forbes Magazine, and trade publication Financial Planning through the Dow Jones News Fund. She’s based in New York City and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2021. 

Written By

Julie Coleman is a fellow on the Military/Defense team at Insider.

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