Trump Cabinet members are in a mad dash to avoid the fate of recently ousted Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, fearful that their own private travel could hasten their departure from the administration.
At various agencies, officials are attempting to put a positive gloss on their boss’ use of charter jets. In some cases they are implicating officials within their own departments as a way to shield themselves from the president’s wrath.
The fury of activity started before Price became the first Cabinet official to depart from the Trump administration. But it hastened on Friday, when the HHS secretary formally resigned amidst a public relations firestorm over his use of expensive, taxpayer-funded charter jets for official travel.
Though no other Cabinet official is known to have spent the more than $1 million that Price did in federal money on chartered and military flights, several others did take eyebrow-raising flights. Once it became clear that Price was on the outs, there was an immediate realization that “if we ever got tied to Price, we’d be crushed,” according to a senior official at another federal agency.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, aides scrambled to put a positive spin on revelations that Administrator Scott Pruitt had taken chartered and military flights for official business at a cost of nearly $60,000. The agency’s press office began blasting out a series of emails highlighting the significantly lower price tag of Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded flights and the different nature of his official travel. They also emphasized that Pruitt had chartered a plane only after commercial flight delays would have prevented him from attending an official event.
But in a reflection of the panicky grip that has taken hold inside the Cabinet, the EPA also quickly sought to shift focus away from Pruitt and own to the agency lawyers who work underneath him. An agency official provided The Daily Beast with letters from its general counsel’s office approving Pruitt’s use of chartered and military aircraft ahead of time to show that he was not independently opting for such travel options.
Travel isn’t the only front on which Pruitt is facing criticism over his spending habits. He has been dogged by revelations over the size of his security detail and recent reports that the agency spent about $25,000 on a sound-proof “phone booth” at EPA headquarters, from which Pruitt could make secure phone calls. A source with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast that, prior to the installation of the EPA “phone booth,” Pruitt did not have a secure phone line with which to speak to the president.
The price tag was jarring, and the vendor building the device said it was a custom installation that cost more than a standard model. But EPA staff quickly argued that it showed the importance of Pruitt’s role in the administration, and of how close to the president he is.
“Lisa Jackson’s EPA was always on the defensive, even with the White House, which explains why they didn’t need a secure line with the President,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement on the secure phone line. “Unlike the previous Administration, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt are working closely to protect the environment.”
Pruitt may have a direct line to Trump. But he also faces an investigation into his use of private jets. At the request of congressional Democrats last week, EPA’s inspector general opened an investigation into “the adequacy of and adherence to policies and procedures regarding travel by an EPA Administrator.”
Other agencies could soon find themselves in a similar position. And unlike the EPA, they are pointing the finger at the White House itself and not their agency lawyers. An official at one agency currently under scrutiny for private travel noted that White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin had met with agency heads early in the Trump administration to discuss what types of travel would be appropriate. Hagin, the official noted, continues to sign off on military travel by federal agencies.
Other Trump Cabinet members have tried to publicly downplay and defend their travel habits. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in remarks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last week, said reports about the more than $12,000 in taxpayer funds he had spent on chartered flights were “a little BS.”
David Shulkin, the administrator of the Department of Veterans Affairs, attempted to spin disclosure of his own controversial private flights as a win for government transparency. In response to criticism over a 10-day European trip Shulkin and his wife took—during which the VA paid for flights, a day at the Wimbledon tennis tournament, and a Thames river cruise followed by an evening at Piccadilly Circus—Shulkin stressed that he conducted official business and announced that the VA would now be disclosing additional information about official travel practices.
“Under this administration, VA is committed to becoming the most transparent organization in government, and I’m pleased to take another step in that direction with this move,” Shulkin said. “Veterans and taxpayers have a right to know about my official travel as secretary, and posting this information online for all to see will do just that.”
The VA’s press office followed up with official statements detailing Shulkin’s commitment to transparency, and running through laudatory media remarks about the subsequent release of information about the secretary’s official travel.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, by contrast, was defiant in the face of suggestions that he had requested expensive government flights to whisk away him and his new wife for their honeymoon. The Treasury acknowledged that a request had been lodged for such travel, but that the agency “withdrew its request after a secure communications option was identified during the Secretary’s extended travel.”
The Treasury’s inspector general opened an investigation into department-wide travel practices in the wake of the controversy. But Mnuchin insisted he did nothing wrong.
“I’ve never asked the government to pay for my personal travel,” he said. “I’m very sensitive to the use of government funds.”