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Health Secretary Tom Price resigns under fire — but other Cabinet members are still taking costly private flights

In the past, similar uses of government resources have garnered outrage. But the pace of controversies coming from the White House has muted the outcry. (Sept. 29, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned Friday in the midst of an expanding controversy over charging taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for flights on private air charters.

His departure was announced in a terse statement by the White House.

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"Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas Price offered his resignation earlier today and the President accepted," the statement said.

The announcement came just after Trump for the third time indicated his displeasure with the cost of Price's flights and the spreading criticism of them, in response to reporters asking whether he would fire his Health secretary.

"He's a good man but I'm disappointed in him," Trump told them at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, as he prepared to board a flight to New Jersey, where he planned to spend the weekend at his golf resort.

Until Friday, Price had been resisting Democratic calls for his departure — Republicans were mostly mute — following a series of Politico stories reporting he had spent more than $400,000 on private domestic travel in recent months.

He spent an additional half-million dollars on military aircraft for events in Europe, Africa and Asia. One trip to Nashville, where Price made two brief appearances and had lunch with his son, cost $17,760 round-trip, Politico said. Seats on similarly timed commercial flights could have been purchased for less than $350.

On Thursday, the secretary said he would repay the government about $52,000, a fraction of the cost of the flights. It was not clear whether that payment had been made before his resignation.

"I regret that the recent events have created a distraction," Price said in a resignation letter released by the White House. "Success on these issues is more important than any one person."

Price said his resignation took effect just before midnight Friday.

Three other Cabinet members — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — also have taken multiple taxpayer-paid flights on private or military aircraft.

Zinke on Friday defiantly defended his three private flights, which included one costing $12,000 that took him to his Montana home after a Nevada dinner with a hockey team owned by a political benefactor. Zinke said suggestions that the flights were improper was "a little B.S."

"Every time I travel, I send the travel plan to the ethics department that reviews it line by line to make sure I am above the law and I follow the law," he said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation on Friday.

The reports about Price and Zinke followed earlier questions about private flights taken by Mnuchin, including one from New York to Washington and another to Kentucky, where he watched the recent solar eclipse with his new wife and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Washington Post also reported that Pruitt had taken multiple taxpayer-paid flights on private or military aircraft, at a cost of more than $58,000. The paper also raised questions about a trip to London by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin that included sightseeing and a Wimbledon tennis match.

The focus on costly flights for administration officials represented only one front of difficulty for the president.

Investigators on Capitol Hill were looking into the use of private emails for government work by the president's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner and others in the White House, a particular embarrassment given Trump's campaign criticism of Hillary Clinton's use of private emails for official correspondence.

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Puerto Rican officials, meantime, were lashing out at U.S. rescue efforts that they said were insufficient for the storm-ravaged island.

Those matters and continued fallout from this week's demise of the GOP healthcare plan, which was overseen by Price, have taken attention from Trump's newest endeavor, the tax cut plan he announced Wednesday. The president has been put on defense at a time he could be building positive momentum that could boost his popularity and give him more power to pressure Congress his way.

There was another danger: Trump's presidential victory was powered by his contention that an outsider businessman sympathetic to overlooked Americans could run the government competently and efficiently. He promised to eradicate self-serving behavior and to "drain the swamp" — a theme his enthusiastic crowds embraced.

The multiple crises threaten to undercut Trump on all of those fronts, allowing opponents the chance to redefine him as a president ignoring the desires of his supporters while sanctioning behavior he once criticized.

In his only public event of the day, a speech to manufacturers in Washington, Trump expressed sympathy for Puerto Rico but otherwise did not discuss other matters swirling around his administration. He reiterated his pledge to help American workers, and cited several elements of the tax plan meant to improve manufacturers' bottom lines.

"My administration is working every day to lift the burdens on our companies and on our workers so that you can thrive, compete and grow," he said. "At the very center of that plan is a giant, beautiful, massive — the biggest ever in our country — tax cut."

But the overhanging difficulties were evident as he opened his speech by praising a "massive federal mobilization" to help Puerto Rico.

"All appropriate departments of our government, from Homeland Security to Defense, are engaged fully in the disaster and the response and recovery effort — probably had never been seen for something like this," he said. "This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water."

Like Trump, Zinke opened what was to be a policy speech with a defense of his actions. On the day of his $12,000 flight, Zinke said, he was in Nevada for department business, and was due to attend a meeting the next day in Montana of the Western Governors Assn.

He could have taken a less-expensive commercial flight between those two events, but he would have missed the hockey team dinner. The team is owned by Bill Foley, one of Zinke's most generous political donors.

Trump has not commented on Zinke's or Pruitt's travel. In brief remarks Sunday he seemed to excuse Mnuchin's actions, which included requesting a government plane for his honeymoon in Europe. (The request was canceled before the trip.) Even then, the president took pains to distance himself from Price.

The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services has been investigating Price's flights, and publicity about them prompted the House Oversight Committee to request information from the White House and various agencies about any other flights .

The use of military craft for foreign travel is not unprecedented, but neither is it routine for domestic secretaries. The use of noncommercial planes for domestic flights is more unusual, although years ago Republicans lit into then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for using a government plane to travel to and from her San Francisco district. The Democrat said at the time that those planes were the best option since she was then second in line to the presidency.

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Price's staff initially said he needed to take private planes to maintain his busy schedule.

Price becomes the first of Trump's Cabinet secretaries to depart under pressure, but the White House has seen more firings and resignations of senior officials in its first months than any administration in memory. Trump's national security advisor, Mike Flynn, left just 22 days into his term; others fired or resigning include FBI Director James B. Comey; White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his deputy; chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon; and three communications directors, including Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci.

The question for Trump is whether the Price resignation will quiet the controversy — or whether it will cut into support by loyalists who have hewed to him through all manner of difficulties.

The new tax plan also looms as a potential problem, given that it would sharply reduce taxes for wealthy Americans but appears to raise them for many at lower incomes. And now, the White House faces a potential fight over a new Cabinet secretary overseeing healthcare, a fraught issue among the senators who will vote on Price's replacement.

Brian Bennett and Evan Halper contributed to this report from Washington.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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