Opinion: Paging Dr. Price, come to the White House courtesy phone. The president would like to berate you now

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, shown testifying during his Senate confirmation hearing in January, is getting little support from the administration for his use of private jets.
(Riccardo Savi / TNS)

If it hadn’t done so already, the clock started ticking Monday on Dr. Tom Price’s tenure as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The signs are all there. On Sunday, after defending Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin against an ABC News report that he’d used a costly military jet to fly from New York to Washington, President Trump declined to offer similar support for his HHS secretary, who has run up huge bills chartering private jets for his business travel this year. “As far as Secretary Price is concerned, that’s different,” Trump told reporters. “We’re looking into it.”

Politico, which broke the story about Price’s use of private jets, reported over the weekend a new tally for Price’s trips: $400,000 since May. Price has defended his preference for the costly charters despite the bad “optics” — as a House member, Price had blasted former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s use of government planes to travel to and from her Bay Area district — but pledged on Fox News to stop using them. “We want to make certain that we have the full confidence not just of this administration, but the American people,” Price said.

One sure sign that you’re out of favor is when [Trump] jokes about someone else doing your job better than you’ve been doing it.


When it comes to the confidence of the administration, it might be a little late. On Monday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders distanced the Oval Office from Price’s travel proclivities. “This wasn’t White House-approved travel,” Sanders said, evidently trying to sever any connection implied by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s presence on a number of Price’s flights. Then, after saying private planes might be appropriate in certain instances, Sanders declined to say whether she thought Price’s choices had been appropriate.

“That travel wouldn’t have gone through the White House for approval, and so I couldn’t speak to that,” Sanders said.

Just imagine what she would have said had the alleged transgressor been one of the president’s (current) favorites. Like Mnuchin, who went out of his way on ABC News on Sunday to defend the president’s profane attack on NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem. OK, it can be hard to tell who’s in Trump’s good graces from day to day, but one sure sign that you’re out of favor is when he jokes about someone else doing your job better than you’ve been doing it.

Which is what the president appeared to do Monday, when he ceremonially signed a memorandum on increasing access to science, technology, engineering and math education. Trump handed his pen to “a very special woman who has worked so hard on this,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“I think we’ll put her in charge of healthcare,” Trump said to laughter from the group. “It’ll get done, right?”

Price has been the White House’s point person on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, but the proposal he backed couldn’t even win the support of his former House colleagues until Trump jumped in and pressed for its passage. A modified version — also backed by Price and Trump — is on life support in the Senate. According to Politico, several administration officials have been grumbling about Price jetting out of Washington to work on disaster response instead of trying to line up GOP votes for the latest proposal, by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and three colleagues.

Even if the repeal-and-replace legislation dies this week in the Senate as expected, the HHS will still have plenty on its plate as it works to undermine enrollment through the state Obamacare exchanges — for example, by shutting down the website every Sunday night during the open enrollment period, or by keeping insurers guessing about whether they’ll be reimbursed for providing the subsidies for out-of-pocket costs that the Affordable Care Act requires them to provide to poorer customers.

But that sounds like a job anyone could do. No need for a medical degree or a chartered jet.

Twitter: @jcahealey