Costly traveler Price quits Trump Cabinet
WASHINGTON — Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, resigned Friday over criticism for racking up at least $400,000 in taxpayer-funded travel bills for chartered flights.
President Donald Trump had already expressed frustration with Price after months of unsuccessful efforts to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Then, Price failed to defuse the president’s anger over his high-priced travel by agreeing to pay a portion of the cost and expressing “regret” for his actions.
Price’s announcement came shortly after Trump told reporters that he considered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics” and planned to make a decision by the end of the day.
“I’m not happy, I can tell you that. I’m not happy,” Trump said as he prepared to leave the White House for his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J. He added that the secretary’s offer to reimburse the government for just part of the cost of the flights “would be unacceptable.”
The White House’s announcement of Price’s departure was spare, with none of the customary praise of his work or thanks for his service. The statement issued by the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said simply that Price had “offered his resignation earlier today and the president accepted.”
Trump tapped Don Wright, a deputy assistant secretary for health and the director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, to serve as acting secretary.
“I have spent forty years both as a doctor and public servant putting people first,” Price said in his resignation letter to Trump. “I regret that the recent events have created a distraction from these important objectives. Success on these issues is more important than any one person. In order for you to move forward without further disruption, I am officially tendering my resignation.”
A short time later, Health and Human Services Department staff members received a message from Price praising them as “dedicated, committed” and saying it had been “a great joy” to serve with them.
He closed: “Duty is Ours — Results are the Lord’s!”
Price’s resignation was the latest departure from an administration plagued by turbulence at the top. In the eight months since Trump took office, he has fired or lost his chief of staff, chief strategist, national security adviser, press secretary, two communications directors, a deputy chief of staff, a deputy national security adviser, the FBI director and numerous other aides and advisers.
Price’s job was on the line since the first of a string of reports by Politico on Sept. 19 about his extensive use of charter aircraft. Trump has fumed privately and publicly about Price’s actions, fearing that they undercut his promise to rid Washington of the sort of abuses that have soured the public on its political class. The president made clear Friday that he also saw it as undermining his promise to save the government money, citing efforts to renegotiate contracts.
In a bid to assuage Trump, the secretary offered Thursday to reimburse the government $51,887 of the $400,000 spent, which he said represented the cost of his seat on the trips, but not those of his staff.
Price, a physician and a former Republican congressman from Georgia who had long opposed former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, served as a point man on Trump’s drive to scrap the law. In July, Trump said he would fire Price if he did not get the votes for the legislation.
“He better get them,” Trump told an audience with Price at his side. “Otherwise, I’ll say, ‘Tom, you’re fired.'”
He said it in a jocular fashion, and his audience at the time took it as a jest, but multiple sources told The New York Times and other news outlets that the president had been privately simmering about Price over the unsuccessful efforts to pass health care legislation in the Senate. While a bill passed the House, the latest effort collapsed this week when enough Senate Republicans voiced reservations to deprive Trump of a majority.
OTHER PRICEY TRIPS
In recent days, a slew of reports about the fast-lane habits of the Cabinet have resulted in a slow-rolling public relations headache for the Trump administration, which is stocked by a high concentration of billionaires, some with their own private jets.
EPA chief Scott Pruitt has spent more than $58,000 in charter and military flights, according to The Washington Post. Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, used a charter airplane for several flights, including a $12,000 trip to deliver a speech celebrating a new professional hockey team in Las Vegas.
Zinke on Friday dismissed the controversy over his use of charter flights as “a little BS over travel” but said the American public has the right to know the costs of official travel. In at least one travel instance for which he has drawn scrutiny, he said no commercial flight had been available at the time.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin inquired about using a $25,000-an-hour military plane for his European honeymoon and later used a government jet to fly to Fort Knox in Kentucky, a trip that offered him a clear view of the solar eclipse in August, although he later disclaimed any interest in the event.
Chief of Staff John Kelly has ordered the president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to revamp the review process for flights. He also has set limits on how much Cabinet members can spend on transportation, according to two people briefed on his plans.
An orthopedic surgeon turned politician, Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. When Price joined the administration, Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act.
But Price became more of a supporting player in the GOP’s health care campaign, while Vice President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly with the Senate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., defended Price’s work, saying Price had worked hard to help that chamber pass its plan before the GOP effort reached an impasse in the Senate.
“I will always be grateful for Tom’s service to this country,” Ryan said Friday.
Democrats said they were glad to see Price go. Some urged Trump to appoint a department secretary who would reach out to them.
“I hope President Trump learns from this mistake, and looks to appoint someone who can work in a bipartisan way to strengthen health care for all Americans,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
As the chartered-flights reports prompted the Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general to begin an examination of the trips, the secretary initially said he would suspend such trips until the inquiry was complete.
On Thursday, he amended that to say he would no longer take such flights, issuing a statement in which he said his private-charter travel had been approved by legal and Health and Human Services Department officials but that he regretted “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.”
“While his resignation ends his time in the government, it does not end the private jet scandal that others in the Trump administration, including Mnuchin, Pruitt and Zinke, find themselves in,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an advocacy group, said in a statement.
“This administration,” he added, “seems to believe that the government and the taxpayers serve them rather than the other way around.”
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Baker of The New York Times; by Matthew Daly, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jonathan Lemire and Catherine Lucey of The Associated Press; and by Amy Goldstein, John Wagner, Lena H. Sun and Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post.
A Section on 09/30/2017