This story is based on interviews with 10 industry officials, lobbyists, staffers and experts, many of whom gave their views on condition of anonymity to be candid about the situation. Their opinions varied — some worry the endorsement will impact how well Fanning can fight for the industry’s priorities with the Trump administration, while others said the endorsement won’t harm AIA’s ability to negotiate with Republicans either in the White House or on Capitol Hill.
Fanning did not return a request for comment.
“It’s a little unusual to see someone come out from one of the professional associations in that manner to really take a political side, but you could argue equally some of the CEOs have been visibly close to the Trump administration, and I suppose there’s political peril in anything anybody does in a highly partisan environment,” said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. “Is there going to be lasting damage to AIA as a result of this? I highly doubt it, any more than I would think there’s going to be lasting damage to Lockheed Martin or Boeing from the fairly close association the CEOs of those companies have had with the Trump administration.”
Fanning’s public break with a sitting president who is running for reelection is uncommon, but not surprising, given his long career under Democratic administrations, said Loren Thompson, a longtime national security expert and private consultant.
“Association heads are supposed to stay nonpolitical,” Thompson said. “But there are obvious exceptions. Trump has so unsettled the political landscape it is not surprising to see. [Fanning] feels strongly about his politics.”
One lobbyist, however, said the endorsement was a deal breaker.
“I think he should have resigned the minute he made that statement,” said a leading defense lobbyist. “He completely neutered AIA.”
“The major defense contractors I have talked to are flabbergasted and furious at this move,” added the lobbyist, who did not want to be identified publicly rebuking Fanning.
The trade group has taken a leading role in working with the Pentagon over the past several months, including participating in weekly phone calls with senior defense officials to share what challenges companies are facing during the coronavirus pandemic and helping industry understand and access federal aid. The need for continued cooperation during the pandemic makes it even more important for the trade group to be able to work seamlessly with the Pentagon, especially between now and the November election.
“It is a concern and companies are certainly talking about it,” said one industry official who declined to speak on the record. “It’s not just about a second term. It’s about this term.”
Though some in industry are upset, the people on the other side of the negotiating table say it’s a non-issue. One senior Republican defense aide on Capitol Hill said the endorsement will not change interactions with congressional staff at all.
“Who the hell cares?” the aide said. “Everyone knows he’s a Democrat. It’s not a secret. And frankly, we need a Democrat in that role, because Republicans are good on this stuff. The Democrats have problems.”
AIA has a history of bipartisan cooperation under Fanning. Since he took the job in 2018, he has met with several top members of the Trump administration, including senior White House officials, four Cabinet secretaries, three major agencies and the civilian leaders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, according to records shared by the group. Under Fanning, the organization has also put out several statements praising the president directly for initiatives ranging from the response to the coronavirus pandemic to the effort to get to the moon by 2024.
A second industry official said all of this success and engagement points to Fanning’s ability to get things done.
“The measure of success is what you can get done working with both parties, not so much your own political views,” the official said.
The association, which was founded in 1919, traditionally operates as a bipartisan entity that can act as a bridge between industry and the administration. Some past leaders were involved with politics before joining AIA, including Don Fuqua, who was a Democratic House lawmaker before leading the group from 1987 to 1998, and John Douglass, who served as an assistant Navy secretary under former President Bill Clinton for five years before joining AIA in 1998.
But there is an expectation among the members that leaders of the trade group will stay out of politics while serving as CEO, according to a third industry official, who said, “We’re not exactly thrilled with the leader of our non-partisan trade organization publicly endorsing a political candidate.”
“You kind of expect people in that job to stay out of the political dialogue for anything other than advocating for the industry,” the official said. “We rely on them to advocate on behalf of the entire industry to both parties, no matter who is in power. We need them to be able to speak with one voice. It’s hard to do that if the leader is staking out a partisan political position.”
Some people were initially surprised Fanning would jump into the politics of the presidential race, but then agreed it made sense given his history serving in a Democratic administration, according to a fourth industry official, who said colleagues immediately began discussion what job Fanning may be vying for.
“I don’t want to say people passed judgment as good or bad, it was more just head-scratching that he would do it because there’s no precedent,” the official said. “Everyone knew he was a very politically active player when he got the job, so they shouldn’t be surprised. He’s clearly trying to position himself for the next thing.”
It’s not the first time Fanning has clashed with Trump. In 2017, before he became the head of the trade group, he criticized the president’s tweet announcing that transgender troops would be barred from serving.
More recently, Fanning was one of 89 former senior defense officials who signed a letter criticizing the president’s use of the military during protests over the death of George Floyd. The letter identifies him as the former secretary of the Army and makes no mention of his role at AIA.
Some in the defense industry community applauded Fanning for taking a stand on social issues when so many in aerospace and defense have remained quiet amid national conversations about LGBTQ rights and racial inequality.
“I see very little in the aerospace and defense sector in terms coming out publicly regarding the current climate of social injustice and systemic racism,” according to a fifth industry official, who said the endorsement was not a hot conversation topic among co-workers. “Perhaps AIA is the beginning of that. “
Still, the official wondered whether Fanning could effectively lead the nonpartisan organization if Trump remains in the White House.
“If the Trump administration wins the next cycle, perhaps it means that he’s OK with not leading AIA under that circumstance,” the official said.
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.