It was a moment of pure chance.
Alan Meloy, a self-confessed “aviation nut”, spotted an unusual plane flying above his home in Sheffield, UK.
He grabbed a long-lens camera, snapped some pictures, before posting them online.
“It was a lovely sunny morning,” Meloy told the BBC. “I looked up, and as soon as I saw it I thought, ‘That’s shiny’. It was in a clear blue sky and perfectly lit.”
That set off a chain of sleuthing from fellow enthusiasts who established that the plane was a Boeing VC-25, and the only two aircraft of that type that are in service are both used for the US president’s transport.
The plane was then tracked as the secret was out that Donald Trump was making a covert appearance to the Middle East at Christmas, hours before any official confirmation from the White House.
Trump’s trip was shrouded in secrecy. Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad, Iraq under the cover of darkness. It was his first visit with troops stationed in a troubled region.
While in Iraq, Trump made a series of statements to US troops which the AP has fact-checked.
A look at some of his statements and the reality behind them:
TRUMP: “You just got one of the biggest pay raises you ever received. Unless you don’t want it. Does anybody here? Is anybody here willing to give up the big pay raise you just got? I don’t see too many hands. Ah, OK. Don’t give it up. It’s great. You know what? Nobody deserves it more. You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years. More than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one.” – remarks prompting cheers from troops Wednesday at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong about there being no pay increase for service members in more than 10 years and about their raise being especially large. US military members have gotten a pay raise every year for decades. As well, several in the last 10 years have been larger than service members are getting now – 2.4 per cent this year and 2.6 per cent in 2019. Raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for example, were all 3.4 per cent or more.
Trump has repeatedly told service members that they’re getting the biggest or only pay raise that they have received in 10 years or more. In May, for example, he told graduates of the United States Naval Academy: “We just got you a big pay raise. First time in 10 years.”
TRUMP: “You had plenty of people, they came up, they said, you know we could make it smaller. We could make it 3 per cent, we could make it 2 per cent, we could make it 4 per cent. I said, ‘no, make it 10 per cent – make it more than 10 per cent.”‘ – remarks Wednesday at al-Asad base.
THE FACTS: Whatever he might have said at the time, the 2.6 per cent for 2019 obviously falls far short of the 10 per cent or more that he implied was achieved.
TRUMP: “I am in the Oval Office & just gave out a 115 mile long contract for another large section of the Wall in Texas.” -tweet Monday.
TRUMP: “Yesterday, I gave out 115 miles’ worth of wall, 115 miles in Texas. It’s going to be built, hopefully rapidly. I’m going there at the end of January for the start of construction.” – remarks to reporters Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He appears to be representing work financed months ago, as new construction. A president cannot simply give out a construction contract. US Customs and Border Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers award contracts for border wall construction after Congress approves the money and months have gone into planning.
In March, Congress approved money for 33 miles (53 kilometres) of construction in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings. The government said in November that construction in the Rio Grande Valley would begin in February. Targeted areas include the nonprofit National Butterfly Center, a state park and privately owned ranches and farmland. Trump’s statement that he plans to visit the site in late January suggests he may be referring to this previously announced construction.
It’s a mystery how he comes up with 115 miles (185 km), and neither the White House nor the Homeland Security Department explained that when asked.
Homeland Security has said the money approved by Congress in March will pay for 84 miles (135km) altogether along the southern border, including the Texas stretch. If the Trump administration got the entire US$5 billion it’s requested from Congress, the administration says that would be enough to build 215 miles (346km) of barrier.
What’s not a mystery is that Trump has repeatedly exaggerated what’s been accomplished on his campaign promise to build a wall sealing the border with Mexico.
TRUMP: “For all of the sympathisers out there of Brett McGurk remember, he was the Obama appointee who was responsible for loading up airplanes with 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH & sending it to Iran as part of the horrific Iran Nuclear Deal (now terminated) approved by Little Bob Corker.” – tweet Monday.
THE FACTS: There are three or more things wrong with this short tweet as he takes a slap at a retiring Republican senator who criticised him, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and a US official who resigned in protest against Trump’s plan to pull troops from Syria, Brett McGurk.
First, Corker was no architect of the 2015 deal between world powers and Iran. He was a leading critic of it in Congress.
He argued at the time that President Barack Obama should have made the pact a treaty subject to approval by the Senate. When Obama didn’t do that, Corker helped fellow senators write legislation that subjected the accord to periodic congressional review. The legislation would have blocked the deal if that effort got enough votes. It didn’t. Obama brought the deal into effect, not Congress.
Corker has sharply criticised Trump, calling him “utterly untruthful” and responsible for “the debasing of our nation”.
Second, branding McGurk an “Obama appointee” is misleading. The veteran diplomat bridges administrations. Republican President George W. Bush appointed him as a senior aide for Iraq and Afghanistan. During the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal by the Obama administration, McGurk led secret side talks with Tehran on the release of Americans imprisoned there. He is Trump’s envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, but quitting in protest of the troop withdrawal.
As for cash flown to Iran, that’s true, though Trump is off on the amount and leaves out important context: The money was a debt owed to Tehran, which bought military equipment from the US that it never received because relations ruptured when the shah was overthrown in 1979. A cargo plane took US$400 million, representing the principal, to the Iranians. The remaining US$1.3 billion, representing interest accrued over nearly 40 years, was transferred separately.
The diplomatic break meant that a variety of debts between the two countries went uncollected and became the subject of international arbitration. As part of that process, Iran paid settlements of more than US$2.5 billion to US citizens and businesses over the years.