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Trump’s Air Force One tweet was a brilliant move

Air Force One, a heavily modified Boeing 747, is seen prior to US President Barack Obama departure from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, December 6, 2016, as he travels to Tampa, Florida, to speak about counterterrorism and visit with troops.
Saul Loeb | AFP| Getty Images
Air Force One, a heavily modified Boeing 747, is seen prior to US President Barack Obama departure from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, December 6, 2016, as he travels to Tampa, Florida, to speak about counterterrorism and visit with troops.

Another day, another provocative tweet from President-elect Donald Trump. This time, he went after Boeing and the cost of the new Air Force One replacement program. But while the target was different, the goal of Trump's twitter use remains the same: It's his negotiating tool and, just as importantly, an instant link to public support that no president has ever been able to use before.

But why this tweet and comments and why now? As few people knew before now, the Air Force is actually currently in negotiations with Boeing on the final costs of the two new Air Force One jets it hopes to buy and have in service by 2024. The source of Trump's $4 billion cost figure in his tweet is not so clear, but the last publicly reported estimate was at $3 billion with costs still rising. Sure, there are a lot of spending programs that cost more that Trump could target. But are there many more that are as easy for all the voters to understand? Air Force One is an iconic jet that we all know exists and almost everyone can picture quickly in their minds. Our social media/short attention span media culture makes this issue absolutely perfect for Trump to single out on Twitter.

And it looks like it may have already worked. About two hours after the tweet, Boeing delivered the following statement:

"We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serves the unique requirements of the President of the United States. We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the President at the best value for the American taxpayer."

Yes, that "at the best value" phrase at the end of the statement says it all. Who knows exactly how much the Trump tweet just saved the American taxpayers? But considering that it cost him and us nothing for him to send it, even a few hundred grand looks like a big net windfall.

And that's not the only reason why the use of Twitter remains crucial to Trump. Every President of the United States has had the option to use public opinion to promote his agenda, but none before Trump has had an established and instantaneous link with his supporters like he has with Twitter. In the past, the best a president could do was go on national TV and make a long speech. That's tortuous compared to the quick bang Trump gets by tweeting directly to his 16 million-plus followers and the tens of millions more who instantly hear about his tweets from the news media.


"Saving us some money, even if it's just a little bit of money, on the new Air Force One jets is something just about every voter wants ... Like the Carrier deal, this might be a very small win on the economic scale, but it's a lot bigger on the political scale of public opinion."

A lot of people still think that Trump is extremely foolish for tweeting like this as opposed to using the established forms of presidential communication. But the really foolish move would be going on national TV even once to discuss the ongoing Boeing negotiations that at best may save the taxpayers a few hundred million bucks. Twitter is instant. It's easy. And as the Carrier deal proved, it's a great way to either initiate or seal an ongoing negotiation.

And, it's worth noting that, while the dollars saved or number of jobs kept in the country from these two incidents are relatively small, they both involve two key members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Boeing and Carrier-parent United Technologies. In pure market cap alone, Trump is really getting a lot of bang for his Twitter buck.

And, there's another good reason why Trump probably singled out the Air Force One program: Trump has had a lot of public images during his career, from hotel and luxury apartment developer to casino magnate to sports team owner to golf club developer to reality show star to politician. But the one attribute he always insists repeating about himself is that he's a person who gets projects done on time and under budget. And with that in mind, it must be killing the President-elect that one of the top stories in New York City right now is the ongoing price tag the city is incurring to provide Trump extra protection. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly said Monday that the cost is $1 million and he's sent a $35 million cumulative bill to the federal government to cover it.

In that light, is there a better way for Trump to distract from the message of that cost-of-protection story and cast himself as someone who wants to sacrifice the personal luxury and monetary costs of the presidency?

Trump is a president who seems to be clinging to boosting and protecting his personal image as his most important asset and ideology. It sounds selfish, and it is. But politicians who do the best job of protecting their image tend to be the ones who understand the voters and what they really like the best. Saving us some money, even if it's just a little bit of money, on the new Air Force One jets is something just about every voter wants. It's a cost-cutting measure on something they know is needed but that they'll never get to enjoy themselves. Like the Carrier deal, this might be a very small win on the economic scale, but it's a lot bigger on the political scale of public opinion.

After Tuesday the only question anyone should have about Trump is not whether he'll stop using Twitter once he's in office, but which company, program, or even person he'll use it to target next.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.