Trump’s Health Secretary May Not Be Leaving Just Yet

Updated on
  • Price spoke with Trump chief of staff, didn’t offer to resign
  • Flights by other top administration officials also questioned

The White House's Growing Travel Headache

President Donald Trump’s private jet-loving health secretary isn’t taking off just yet.

Tom Price, Trump’s head of Health and Human Services, spoke with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Wednesday and didn’t offer his resignation over his taxpayer-funded trips on charter jets, said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Price is facing investigations by Congress and the HHS Office of Inspector General over what Politico has reported are at least 24 private flights with costs totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Asked earlier Wednesday whether he would fire Price, Trump said he was looking “very closely” at the possibility. “I am not happy with him,” the president said.

If Price stays, the White House may simply let him deal with the scandal himself. The White House won’t defend Price’s use of charter flights for routine travel, another official said, calling it an inappropriate use of federal money.

Trump is also displeased with Price over the failure so far to pass legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare, but has kept him on because of Price’s relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, according to a person close to the president.

Plane Problems

Price staying, however, raises the risk of a drumbeat of stories about his use of the jets when at least two other cabinet officials -- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt -- are also facing questions over similar use of private or government aircraft.

Earlier in the day, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a letter asking Price for details on his use of “government-owned aircraft for personal travel or private non-commercial aircraft for official travel.” The oversight letter is part of a wider probe by the committee into the use of government planes or private aircraft by senior Trump administration officials. 

The letter, signed by the committee’s top Republican and Democrat, gives Price two weeks to provide the records. It also drags the former congressman into an inquiry led by fellow Republicans, a relative rarity in Washington politics. 

HHS said that it has initiated its own review of travel processes and procedures and will fully cooperate with Congress and the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Mnuchin, Pruitt

Mnuchin was criticized after he and his wife took an Air Force jet on Aug. 21 to meet with business leaders in Kentucky and visit the Fort Knox gold reserves. Mnuchin and his staff also requested a government plane for his honeymoon in August, though he didn’t use the jet. Pruitt also flew on private planes several times, CBS News has reported.

Price took over the HHS job in February, and part of his role has been to push for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Those efforts have failed so far, with Senate Republicans dropping their latest effort to overturn former President Barack Obama’s marquee law earlier this week.

Last week, Price spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest defended Price’s travel. “The travel department continues to check every possible source for travel needs including commercial, but commercial travel is not always feasible,” she said.

Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the oversight committee, declined to comment on whether Price should stay in the job.

“It was not my job to give President Obama hiring or firing advice nor is it my job to give President Trump hiring or firing advice,” Gowdy said in an emailed statement. “Our job is to accumulate facts to elucidate the truth.”

Democratic Criticism

Democrats have pounced on the jet trips. Five House Democrats sent a letter to Price on Wednesday calling on him “to do the right thing and immediately tender your resignation.”

Representative Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Wednesday that if the allegations against Price are true, Price “should reimburse taxpayers for the funds he spent on private jets and apologize to the American people for his gross breach of the public trust.”

Pallone also said he was shocked by “the outright hypocrisy of these actions from a man who has spent his career railing against government waste.”

In 2009, Price told CNBC that Congress should cut spending on government planes that supporters said were needed to carry military officials leading soldiers into combat. Price criticized an original effort to spend $550 million on eight passenger jets, and also objected to a reduced $220 million request for four jets.

“Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets,” he said at the time. “This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in congress right now.”

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs

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