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Federal Government Grounds All Boeing 737 Max 8 Jets As Investigation Continues


The federal government is grounding all 737 MAX jetliners as an investigation continues into Sunday's deadly crash in Ethiopia. It was the second crash involving the new Boeing model in five months. President Trump announced the order at the White House this afternoon after repeated assurances from Boeing and domestic carriers that the planes are safe. Boeing's chief executive made that argument just yesterday in a phone call with the president.

The jet manufacturer has long had a direct line to the highest reaches of power here in Washington, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Trump had been in office less than a month when he paid a visit to a Boeing factory in South Carolina to celebrate the launch of a new 787 Dreamliner.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I have to say also that is one beautiful airplane.

HORSLEY: Parts for the long-range Dreamliner come from around the world, and the planes are mostly sold overseas. Nevertheless, Trump hailed the jet as a triumph of American engineering and manufacturing.


TRUMP: May God bless the United States of America, and God bless Boeing.


HORSLEY: The president joked about his tough negotiations with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg over a new series of military jets and new 747s to serve as Air Force One. The two met face-to-face at Trump Tower and Trump's Florida resort. Muilenburg told Marketplace last month he doesn't mind that kind of in-person arm-twisting by the president.


DENNIS MUILENBURG: What it tells me is, one, he cares about business, and he creates open communication lines.

HORSLEY: Of course Trump is not the first president to take an interest in Boeing's business. Former President Obama was also an aggressive promoter of Boeing products, especially overseas.


BARACK OBAMA: I'm expecting a gold watch...


OBAMA: ...From Boeing at the end of my presidency because I know that I'm on the list of top salesmen at Boeing.

HORSLEY: Two months ago, Obama was a special guest at Boeing's corporate retreat, and the company made a sizable donation to the former president's library. For decades, Boeing has worked to ingratiate itself with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Sheila Krumholz, who runs the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, says Boeing spent $15 million on lobbying last year.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It's right up there as one of the most powerful operations in the country.

HORSLEY: And it's not just Boeing's checkbook that makes the jet maker influential in Washington. The company is the nation's largest exporter, the second largest defense contractor, and Boeing employs more than 130,000 people around the country.

KRUMHOLZ: This is a blue chip company that lots of government officials have long been proud to be associated with.

HORSLEY: The acting Defense secretary was a longtime Boeing executive, and the acting head of the FAA used to work for Boeing's trade association. While that agency ultimately grounded the 737 MAX jets this afternoon, other countries were quicker to respond to Sunday's crash. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said before this afternoon's order he planned to hold hearings into Boeing's conduct and the government's oversight.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Boeing should be much more public in explaining why these airlines are crashing. It's really that simple.

HORSLEY: Krumholz says at a time like this, Boeing will be using every tool in its toolkit not only to find and fix any problem with its airplanes but also to keep regulators and policymakers on the company's side.

KRUMHOLZ: Of course when a crisis hits, now is the time that they are undoubtedly happy that they have these strong relationships in Washington because they will need them.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.