Editorial: Trump officials seem to think they’re entitled to travel like rock stars — on your dime
Donald Trump won the presidency with a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Of course, he has done no such thing. This is the government of, by and for the 1%. The president himself is a billionaire, as are Wilbur Ross (Commerce secretary) and Betsy DeVos (Education secretary), and at least nine other Cabinet members and top advisors are multimillionaires.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that at least four current top officials have apparently decided that they deserve to travel like capitalist rock stars — one took a private charter to his summer home in Montana, for example, and another flew first class on the 45-minute ride from Washington to New York City — rather than what they are: top government bureaucrats doing the taxpayers’ business at the taxpayers’ expense.
Remarkably, this particular scandal has barely caused a public ripple. Nor has it seemed to chasten the administration’s inner circle. Last year, Tom Price was hounded from his position as Health and Human Services secretary following revelations that he had run up more than $1 million in private charter bills rather than taking commercial flights to official appearances. But this object lesson didn’t end the money-wasting by the president’s swamp denizens.
Scott Pruitt, the man Trump appointed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, routinely flies first class on the public’s dime. Why? Because, according to the EPA, he has received threats and apparently believes that he’s safer separated from the hoi polloi. His policies have made him a lightning rod, to be sure. But given that everyone on these planes has cleared an airport security screening to get aboard and that Pruitt is accompanied by a personal security detail, the likelihood that he would face a dangerous confrontation in coach is slim. What is more likely is that the private citizens he winds up flying with will want to ask him tough questions he’d rather not answer. That’s not a security concern, it’s an effort to avoid potentially uncomfortable encounters with the public he has sworn to serve.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin similarly caught flak last year for taking seven military flights costing $800,000 — including the notorious trip that enabled him and his wife to watch the total solar eclipse from the roof of Ft. Knox — rather than flying commercial planes (nice optics for a guy worth $400 million). Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has used public money for charter flights, often accompanied by his wife. But shoddy record keeping has stymied an investigation, the department’s inspector general said in November.
In any normal administration, these would be significant political scandals.
The most recent kerfuffle involves a trip last year by Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin to England and Denmark. A recent inspector general’s report alleges that Shulkin’s chief of staff falsified a document to grease the skids so taxpayers would pick up the cost of his wife coming along. Shulkin, who joined the VA during the Obama administration to oversee its health programs, worked for 3½ of the eight days he was in Europe; the rest of the time (arranged by a staffer) was spent hitting tourist sites and watching a Wimbledon championship match courtesy of tickets provided by Victoria Gosling, whom Shulkin had described as a friend of his wife, Dr. Merle Bari. In an interview with the inspector general’s office, Gosling couldn’t remember Bari’s first name.
Shulkin initially defended his actions, then told a congressional panel that he would pay the Treasury for his wife’s travel and cover the cost of his Wimbledon tickets. On Friday, his chief of staff announced her retirement.
In any normal administration, these would be significant political scandals. But Trump’s endless stream of controversies, conflicts of interest, boundary-crossing tweets and pratfalls on the affairs of state have made such apparent abuses of office by department heads a footnote. Most galling is the sense of entitlement these scandals expose: “Of course I should fly first class from Washington to New York City because I am a top government official,” they seem to be saying. That is such a tinhorn attitude. What’s next, a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue?
The federal government has policies governing air travel, and they require officials to fly coach unless there are exceptional circumstances (think: medical condition) or the trip can’t be rescheduled and no coach seats are available. Those arguments don’t exist — or at least they aren’t believable — for the flights that have come to light, which means top government officials are routinely abusing federal polices. In a government in which accountability mattered, this would be an issue of debate, investigation and oversight.
11:37 a.m.: This editorial was updated with additional details about the controversy surrounding VA Secretary Shulkin.
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