For the third time in a few weeks, a member of [President Trump’s] administration is facing questions about his use of non-commercial flights. First, it was Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin using a government plane to fly to Fort Knox, where he viewed the eclipse with his wife, Louise Linton (Mnuchin denies that was the purpose of the trip, but an inspector general is reviewing it). Then reports surfaced about Mnuchin’s request to use a government plane for the couple’s European honeymoon (they didn’t wind up using one). Now it’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of charters for five flights between Washington and the Northeast last week.
The timing could not be worse. At a time the administration is pushing the latest incarnation of “repeal and replace” of Obamacare, the HHS secretary is burning up the miles and taxpayer money ($60,000 in three days, according to the original Politico report) for what seems like frivolous and wholly unnecessary purposes. Some of the flights “were so close to Washington that it’s difficult to understand why charters would be necessary.” Moreover, when he was a congressman Price would not have been allowed to use a charter; so it’s not as if he is a newcomer to government travel. And these charters may be just the tip of the iceberg. (“Current and former staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say Price has been taking private jets to travel domestically for months. Ethics experts say the use of private charters by government officials, while legal, is highly dubious and in most cases a misuse of taxpayer funding.”)
Conservative blogger Allahpundit candidly writes: “Isn’t this guy a fiscal conservative? What the hell is he thinking? We would have feasted for days on a story about some entitled, out-of-touch bureaucrat jet-setting around the country on the taxpayer dime during the Obama era.”
It’s rather easy to see why Price would do this. The ethical standards in this administration are virtually nonexistent. The president maintains business operations in which foreign governments, domestic pleaders and other government officials stay. The president employs his own daughter and son-in-law, who both have their own ethical conflicts. The president hawks his own businesses in his presidential guise (he’s always president); Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin does the same for a movie he produced and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway does it on behalf of Ivanka Trump’s jewelry line. Mnuchin and Conway get slaps on the wrists.
The administration’s ethics waivers are a mess, according to the former director of the ethics office Walter Shaub. Impermissible undated or backdated waivers are used, in violation of prior ethics rulings.
In short, Trump has plainly signaled that self-enrichment, self-dealing and self-promotion are all perfectly acceptable. The sense of entitlement and arrogant disregard of rules (both legal and normative) which other administrations of both parties followed is plain for all to see. One can point to Price’s own ethical flaps (trades of health-care stocks while he was on a congressional oversight committee came up in hearings), but it is not the person but the president who is responsible for setting a standard of behavior.
And it is the GOP Congress as well that has turned a blind eye to Trump’s conflicts of interest, nepotism and foreign emoluments. They, too, have signaled that they aren’t to be bothered with ethics. Trump’s Cabinet and senior advisers pick that up.
The openness of the greed and self-enrichment suggests not that anything is wrong, but that the Trump team is shameless. Maybe members of this Congress should do something about it before Democrats use this permissive attitude toward corruption against them in the 2018 midterms.