Mnuchin, Price and others on Trump’s team are flying high with taxpayer money – but where’s the outrage?
The Treasury secretary requested a military plane for his European honeymoon. The head of Health and Human Services ran up a six-figure tab flying around the country on private jets. The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency dinged taxpayers for repeated excursions back home to Oklahoma.
In normal times, Washington’s scandal machinery would be kicking into high gear. Mounting outrage — some real, some calculated — would lead to months of hearings and calls for criminal investigations.
The abundant wealth of two of the fancy fliers, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, would only amplify the criticism.
But the unceasing turmoil of Donald Trump’s presidency has muted the outcry.
It’s hard for the champagne tastes of a Cabinet secretary to garner much attention when the president is picking a racially tinged fight with pro athletes, drawing plaudits from white supremacists, battling a special prosecutor investigating Russia’s role in his election and warning that he might nuke North Korea.
“We’ve now gone through over a year of campaigning and 10 months of Trump as president-elect and now president,” said Lara Brown, who heads the Graduate School of Political Management at the capital’s George Washington University.
Having witnessed so many uproars — over provocative remarks, outlandish behavior, impolitic actions — “nothing seems scandalous anymore,” Brown said.
Norman Ornstein, a frequent Trump critic who has spent decades observing Washington from a perch at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, agreed. “You have so many, one coming right after the other,” he said, “that it dilutes the impact of all of them.”
There are government rules intended to prevent high living among those in high places. Federal guidelines state that taxpayers “should pay no more than necessary” for officials’ transportation, which in practice has meant flying commercial, barring extraordinary circumstance.
Some members of Trump’s Cabinet, among the richest appointees ever to serve in government, have eschewed the necessary sacrifice and reached into their own pockets for upgraded accommodations.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has reported as much as $1.5 billion in assets, travels on her personally owned aircraft at zero cost to taxpayers, according to the department. (However, the U.S. Marshals Service is spending more than $1 million a month to protect DeVos, an occasional target of protests.)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is worth as much as $687 million, charges the government nothing for travel on his leased private jet, a spokesman said. When taxpayers pay for commercial travel, the spokesman said, he uses his own money to upgrade to business or first class.
Others in the administration have been less penny-wise.
Mnuchin, a former Wall Street executive and Hollywood producer worth as much as $350 million, married Scottish actress Louise Linton in June at Trump International Hotel near the White House. He requested an Air Force jet for his honeymoon to Scotland, France and Italy. His office said he needed access to secure communications during the trip but withdrew the request after finding another option.
Mnuchin did take a military jet last month from New York to Washington, saying once again he needed a secure phone line. The Aug. 15 flight cost at least $25,000, ABC News reported.
Mnuchin and his wife drew fire for flying a week later on a government plane to Kentucky, where they viewed the solar eclipse. Treasury officials defended the visit as official travel — Mnuchin attended a luncheon and visited the gold vault at Ft. Knox — and said he would reimburse the government for his wife’s costs.
There’s just no enthusiasm for pursuing things when they’re a member of your own tribe.
— Scott Basinger, a University of Houston expert on political scandal.
Price’s trips on chartered jets could prove more problematic. He has called for deep spending and staffing cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services, including a $6-billion reduction at the National Institutes of Health, opening him to charges of both poor judgment and hypocrisy.
Politico has documented 26 flights by Price on private charter planes at taxpayer expense since early May, estimating the cost at more than $400,000. It found frequent, low-cost airline flights on some of the routes he took, as well as train fares as low as $72 for a trip between Washington and Philadelphia — as opposed to about $25,000 for his charter.
Two of Price’s private jet trips paid for by the government were to places where he owns property — St. Simons Island, Ga., and Nashvile, Politico reported Tuesday. A department spokesman said Price conducted official business and visited family members and colleagues.
When he was a Georgia congressman, Price spoke out against a proposed purchase of small planes to transport government officials, including members of Congress. “This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now,” he told CNBC.
On Saturday, Price said he would forgo private flights at taxpayer expense pending an internal review, conceding in a Fox News interview that his behavior created an image problem. (Price is a relative pauper in Trump’s Cabinet, with a mere $22 million or so in assets.)
Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency chief, has been criticized for his frequent travels back to Oklahoma, where the former state attorney general is discussed as a possible candidate for governor. Although he has mostly flown commercial, the high-priced fares suggest he was probably not traveling coach.
In the latest development, the EPA confirmed Wednesday that Pruitt flew in a private jet round trip from Denver to Durango, Colo. He also reportedly flew a military plane from Cincinnati to New York.
Separately, the EPA — which has also been targeted for deep budget cuts — is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail.
Democrats are doing their best to spur public outrage over the seeming sense of entitlement.
“Taxpayer funds are not meant to be used as a jet-setting slush fund,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey said after Politico revealed Price’s costly trips.
The travel tastes of Mnuchin, Price and Pruitt have triggered investigations by the inspectors general of each of their agencies. The inquiries will determine whether any federal rules were broken.
But with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House, there is little appetite to scrutinize Cabinet members with as much fervor as, say, the multiple inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State.
“There’s just no enthusiasm for pursuing things when they’re a member of your own tribe,” said Scott Basinger, a University of Houston political scientist and expert on political scandal.
Brown of George Washington University, who has written extensively about the nature of political scandal, said the expensive habits of Trump’s Cabinet members could still mushroom into full-blown, career-ending crises “if their behavior appears even more corrupt and swamp-like than the worst cynicism” voters harbor toward Washington — or if Trump turns on them
On Sunday, the president defended Mnuchin, an important player in efforts to push a tax bill through Congress, but not his Health secretary. “As far as Secretary Price is concerned, that’s different,” Trump said. “We’re looking into it.”
Speaking Monday at the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was blunter still, telling reporters that Price’s travel “wasn’t White House-approved.”
As for Trump himself, Brown sees little danger of political harm to the president.
“He did say he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t matter,” Brown said. “There is, sadly, truth to that.”
Sept. 27, 12:48: This article was updated with details of Pruitt’s flights on private and military jets.
5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details of two of Price’s trips.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.
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