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Will Health Secretary Tom Price be fired over use of charter planes? ‘We’ll see,’ Trump says

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President Trump leaves the White House on Wednesday en route to Indiana.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump on Wednesday said he was “not happy” about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s repeated use of expensive taxpayer-funded charter flights, and did not rule out firing the Cabinet member.

“I’m not happy about it. I’m going to look at it. I am not happy about it and I let him know it,” Trump told reporters before leaving the White House to fly to Indiana to announce his tax plan.

Asked if he had confidence in Price, Trump repeated his displeasure.

When Trump was asked if he planned to fire Price, he replied: “We’ll see.”

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Politico has documented more than two dozen charter flights taken by Price, costing taxpayers more than $400,000. They included visits to a resort where Price owns land and, separately, to a lunch with his son.

In a day-after-day series of articles which began late last week, Politico reported that the former congressman had taken private planes despite the availability of commercial flights or other forms of transportation. The news organization said Tuesday that a flight to the resort island of St. Simons, Ga., last month came nearly two days before a public appearance nearby.

The trip, which included lunch with Price’s son, came in June, Politico said. Price made two brief appearances in Nashville before and after the lunch. The flight cost $17,760 round trip, while a seat on similarly timed commercial flight could have been purchased for less than $350, Politico said.

The inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department is probing the flights, and the House Oversight Committee has asked the White House and various agencies to turn over information about any private flights.

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Such flights are typically not allowed if there are cheaper commercial options. Politico cited vastly less expensive options available at the same time as Price’s flights.

Trump’s remarks were the latest example of the White House distancing itself from Price’s actions. On Monday, when asked about the flights during a media briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said twice that “this wasn’t White House-approved travel.”

The president has had public spats with others in his administration. He blistered Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions after Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department’s Russia elections investigation, a decision that Trump blamed for the later appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. He also was angered when his chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, was publicly critical of Trump’s response to the white supremacist march and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Neither of those men has left the administration.

But Price’s tenure has been rocky for reasons other than the flights. He was the president’s point man on healthcare, a sore subject now that multiple bills have been brought up by Republicans and failed to gain majority approval in the Senate. Price also has been at the center of the administration’s efforts on opioid abuse, a topic Trump promised in the campaign would be a high priority but for which a plan of action has yet to be developed.

Price also represents an easy target, having long derided Democrats for profligate spending. During a 2009 debate over the purchase of jets for congressional travel, Price, who then represented a suburban Atlanta district, called it “just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok.”

After news emerged of his own travel, Price’s aides first said the trips were necessary because of his demanding schedule and to visit areas where transportation was complicated due to hurricane damage. But Politico documented 26 flights dating to last May, many taking place well before the recent destructive storms or aimed at locations elsewhere.

Price told Fox News on Saturday that his department was conducting a review of the flights. He acknowledged that “the optics in some of this don’t look good.”

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“I don’t think there would be any charter trips until this review is complete,” he said.

A department spokeswoman on Wednesday said Price was taking the review seriously, but did not respond to Trump’s comments.

In a capital where response to allegations of misconduct is almost always driven by partisanship, Price is the rare administration official to come under suspicion from fellow Republicans. The House Oversight Committee has drafted letters asking Price and other agencies for information about any charter flights, Politico reported. The move by Republicans on the committee — which came days after the ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, had made a similar request of Price — suggested that patience was waning after the unfolding series of disclosures about the secretary.

Other administration officials have come under more limited criticism for their private flights.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin took a jet from New York to Washington in August, saying he needed access to secure communications. A week later he traveled on a government plane to Kentucky, where he and his wife watched the solar eclipse along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the state’s senior senator. That flight is being investigated by the Treasury Department’s inspector general.

Mnuchin also requested a government-paid plane for his June honeymoon to Italy, France and Scotland, with his office again saying he needed access to secure communications. The request was withdrawn.

Asked about all of the flights by various secretaries, Trump on Sunday seemed to excuse Mnuchin, repeatedly telling reporters to “check your records” about the Treasury Secretary taking flights.

“I understand he never took that flight,” Trump said, apparently referring to the canceled honeymoon request.

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But even then he distanced himself from Price.

“As far as Secretary Price is concerned, that’s different,” Trump said. “We’re looking into it.”

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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