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Fact Checker: Sean Hannity's tale of a Trump rescue

Donald Trump invites children to "run through the plane" in Dubuque, Iowa, on Jan. 30, 2016.

MICHAEL FINNEGAN, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By GLENN KESSLER | The Washington Post | Published: August 11, 2016

"The Trump campaign has confirmed to Hannity.com that Mr. Trump did indeed send his plane to make two trips from North Carolina to Miami, Florida to transport over 200 Gulf War Marines back home."

-- quote in article titled "200 Stranded Marines Needed A Plane Ride Home, Here's How Donald Trump Responded," Sean Hannity Show website, May 19, 2016

It seemed like such a sweet story - Donald Trump sending his personal plane down to Camp Lejeune, N.C., when 200 Marines were stranded after fighting in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. At least that is the story that Sean Hannity of Fox News has touted on his website for several months.

But a reader was suspicious and asked The Fact Checker to check it out.

The Hannity story mostly relied on the recollections of Cpl. Ryan Stickney, who was a squad leader in an anti-tank (TOW) company in the Marine reserves that was called up for duty for the 1990-91 conflict that took place after Iraq invaded Kuwait. After five weeks of air strikes, the United States and its allies ousted Iraq in a 100-hour ground assault.

The command chronology shows that 209 officers and Marines of the TOW Company (part of the 8th Tank Battalion for Operation Desert Shield) were activated on Nov. 26, 1990. The company arrived in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 22 and served through the end of March, before returning to Camp Lejeune. Stickney is listed as receiving a certificate of commendation.

After a few weeks in Camp Lejeune, the part-time soldiers were scheduled to return to their base in Broward County. An article in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper on the homecoming reported that it had been "marred by flight delays," forcing well-wishers to wait for hours in the sun. The article said the Marines arrived on two flights, one at noon and one after 5 p.m.

"Stickney recalls being told that a mistake had been made within the logistics unit and that an aircraft wasn't available to take the Marines home on their scheduled departure date," Hannity.com reported. But then Trump supposedly came to the rescue: "The way the story was told to us was that Mr. Trump found out about it and sent the airline down to take care of us," Stickney said.

He even took a photo.

Our reader was suspicious because of the language "recalls being told." That sounds more like a rumor than any confirmation.

Moreover, a close look at the photograph shows that was not Trump's private plane at the time. That's a Boeing 727 jet that was part of a Trump Shuttle fleet - an airline that Trump briefly owned before it was essentially seized by the banks because he failed to make payments on his loans.

Trump had put the Trump Shuttle up for sale on April 27, 1990, but by September couldn't make loan payments and needed to cut a new deal with his bankers. By the time the TOW company went off to war, Trump had not paid interest on a $235 million Citibank loan for months.

By the time the warriors returned from Saudi Arabia, the banks had made it clear they would determine how and when the shuttle was sold. Trump was in such financial straits that he had even agreed to sell his personal jet for $7 million in a bid to raise cash.

So how did the Trump Shuttle end up in Camp Lejeune?

Well, it turns out when Trump bought the shuttle from Eastern Airlines, he made a bad deal, accepting an additional five planes instead of a lower purchase price because the market had turned south. As The Daily Beast noted, in an entertaining account of Trump's foray into the airline business, "the shuttle needed only 16 planes to operate a full hourly schedule at its three cities, with one or two jets as spares, and extra aircraft are anathema to an airline - they don't make money sitting on the ground."

So some of those extra planes were contracted out to the U.S. military to ferry personnel in the United States during Operations Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991. Lt. Gen. Vernon J. Kondra, now retired, was in charge of all military airlift operations. He said that relying on commercial carriers freed up the military cargo aircraft for equipment transport.

Kondra graciously checked his notes for The Fact Checker, which have been put into an oral history and declassified. There are several references to a 1990-91 contract for Trump Shuttle to carry personnel across the United States, between the East and West Coasts, on a standard LaGuardia-Dover-Charleston-Travis-Chord-Kelly-Dover-LaGuardia run.

"It worked very well, and the crews loved it, and really thought that we'd done something special for them," Kondra recalled in the oral history. "It was a helluva lot better than using 141s [cargo craft], which we could use for something else."

But Kondra said that the notion that Trump personally arranged to help the stranded soldiers made little sense. "I certainly was not aware of that. It does not sound reasonable that it would happen like that. It would not fit in with how we did business," he told The Fact Checker. "I don't even know of how he would have known there was a need."

Indeed, as we have noted, at the time Trump was in constant negotiations with his bankers, seeking to prevent financial ruin. Presumably he was rather busy.

More than likely, given the proximity of the Trump Shuttle to Camp Lejeune, as part of the contract an aircraft was dispatched from LaGuardia to pick up the troops and take them to Florida. The five-hour gap between arrivals in Broward County suggests one plane was used to go back and forth between North Carolina and Florida.

We had a pleasant exchange of emails with Stickney but he choose not to comment for the record after learning the results of our inquiry. Hannity and the Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the rumors on base, it's clear that Trump had nothing to do with the dispatch of the jet to Camp Lejeune. The aircraft that ferried the troops was part of the Trump Shuttle fleet, at a time when Trump barely had control over the airline and was frantically trying to negotiate deals with bankers to prevent the collapse of his business empire.

Trump Shuttle had a contract with the military and this flight home was part of that contract. Simple as that.

Sean Hannity needs to correct this article, if not pull it down. The Trump campaign confirmed a story that is easily debunked.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, addresses the 117th annual VFW National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
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