On the campaign trail, Donald Trump frequently argued that as a billionaire he didn’t really need the job of president and would be immune to a D.C. culture of corruption and waste. As he rolled-out his Cabinet picks, among the richest in history, he echoed that same logic.
But in recent days, several members of Trump’s Cabinet have been tripped up by the same kinds of wasteful spending habits that Republicans have long decried.
The revelation that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took more than a dozen flights on privately chartered jets cost him his job and sent the Trump Administration into damage control mode. But Price is not the only member of president’s team in hot water, and the Cabinet’s high-flying ways suggest a culture of conspicuous consumption at the highest levels of the Trump Administration — often racked up on the people’s credit card.
Price took the step Thursday of reimbursing the federal government $51,887.31 for his seat on the flights, a fraction of the more than $400,000 estimated to have been spent by the department the flights. Hundreds of thousands more was spent on military flights for overseas trips. But that controversy had grown to be a distraction to the administration's agenda and an embarrassment to the President, who acknowledged Friday that he had a growing perception problem.
"Look, I think he's a very fine person," Trump said of Price. "I certainly don't like the optics."
In addition to Price’s flights, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew privately from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in June at a cost to taxpayers of $12,375, Politico first reported.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sought out a military jet costing as much as $25,000 per flight hour to shuttle him on a European honeymoon. His department’s inspector general added the withdrawn request to an ongoing investigation into Mnuchin’s eclipse-day flight to the path of totality to ensure they complied with departmental guidelines. (It was an Instagram photo after that flight that set off his wife, Scottish actress Louise Linton, on an out-of-touch digital tirade defending her lifestyle.)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has come under scrutiny for installing a nearly $25,000 custom soundproof booth in his office. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama Administration, reportedly used a work trip in London to take in a visit to Wimbledon and a river cruise along the Thames.
The blooming political scandal comes as the Trump Administration embarks on its most ambitious legislative effort — a rewrite of the federal tax code that will greatly benefit corporations and the wealthy.
To pay for it, the White House and Cabinet agencies have proposed aggressive spending cuts, including to those run by the privately flying secretaries. It also cuts against Trump’s campaign rhetoric of "draining the swamp" in Washington, and tests the reputation of a president whose public persona revolves around his claimed management acumen.
The spendthrift ways are partly a reflection of the times, with strong economic indicators and markets reaching new heights. Former Obama Administration officials said the optics of the global recession made the use of private and military flights for most of the Cabinet a rarity but for national security positions and complex foreign travel.
They also track the example set by the president. In private life, Trump celebrated the extravagant, with gold-plated finishes on his personal Boeing 757 and a marbled triplex overlooking Central Park. Since moving into the Oval Office, Trump’s frequent vacations have strained modern precedent. His jaunts to his private clubs and golf courses have raised ethical and Constitutional concerns over profiting from his office.
As a member of the House of Representatives, Price raised eyebrows with his widespread stock trading of companies with business before his committees. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Price asserted that he abided by all ethical rules, but Democrats raised concerns about his access to nonpublic information.
The White House pointed this week to statistics showing it had authorized fewer military flights for officials than the Obama Administration. But Trump officials have generally maintained a lighter travel schedule than their predecessors, and it was not clear how many, if any, trips were rejected in favor of commercial travel.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday Trump was “not thrilled — certainly not happy with the actions” of Price. She added that the White House is studying whether it require West Wing sign-off for private charter flights, the way it is required for military flights.
But for Price, it may be too late.