President Trump on Wednesday said he is "not happy" about revelations that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took numerous flights on government-funded private jets for work and personal trips. But the former congressman from Georgia is likely to keep his job, according to two people familiar with Trump's thinking.
Responding to questions from reporters at the White House, Trump said he is “looking into” the situation and that “personally, I'm not happy about it, and I let him know it.” Trump spoke by phone with Price in recent days, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the personnel issue.
Price has been criticized for using public funds to pay for private flights more than two dozen times, according to Politico, mixing in some personal travel with business trips.
“I'm going to look at it," Trump said, after a reporter asked about Price's future, though it was not completely clear whether Trump was answering that direct question.
Later, asked again whether he would fire Price, Trump said, “We'll see.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies, said in an interview Wednesday that although he had not yet had a chance to talk to Price, the secretary's practice of taking so many charter planes reflected “poor judgment.”
“This is way too many private flights,” said Cole, who is friendly with Price, a former congressman, from their time serving together. Cole noted that while he has “enormous respect for the professional job he’s doing,” he was disturbed by the secretary’s use of taxpayer dollars.
“It’s one thing if you’re paying for them yourself,” Cole said. “It’s quite another if you’re turning over the cost of that to the American taxpayer.” Cole, who oversees the HHS budget, added that at a time when the administration is seeking “steep cuts in the budget at HHS,” it needs to shepherd its resources carefully.
“That puts an extra responsibility on you, that the dollars you have are stretched to the maximum,” Cole said, noting that his panel has approved less severe cuts in the HHS budget than the administration had sought.
Democrats have also called Price’s use of private jets — some with plush leather chairs, kitchens and other amenities — hypocritical. Price has sought deep budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health and other measures he calls cost savings. He opposes the Affordable Care Act, calling it too expensive and inefficient.
In a letter Tuesday, House investigators asked Price and more than 20 other agency heads to list all use of private, charter aircraft and use of government-owned aircraft by political employees since Trump's inauguration.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the panel's top Democrat, have requested passenger manifests, dates of use, destinations, costs and other data for each trip. The information is due Oct. 10.
The letter reminded Price and other recipients that official travel for all federal employees must be “by the most expeditious means of transportation practicable,” and be in line with an employee's function. Travel “by no means should include personal use.”
The Health and Human Services inspector general is also investigating Price’s taxpayer-funded travel involving at least two dozen flights in recent months, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Investigators will seek records of Price’s travel and review the justifications that he and his staff gave for the trips, the spokeswoman for HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson said.
Democrats who requested the review cited a Politico report that Price took five private charter flights along routes and at times when commercial flights were available for a fraction of the cost. In a second article, the news organization reported that the Georgia Republican has taken at least 24 such flights since early May. The flights cost taxpayers a reported $300,000.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general's office is also investigating two instances when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used government planes for travel. Last month, Mnuchin and his wife flew to Louisville on a government jet to attend a luncheon and visit the nation’s gold vault at Fort Knox. Mnuchin also viewed the solar eclipse from Kentucky, a prime viewing spot, the same day.
Days later, Mnuchin flew on a government jet from New York to Washington after a news conference with Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Price’s office last week sought to justify his use of chartered jets, saying charter flights are sometimes the most effective way for him to do his job.
A spokeswoman, Charmaine Yoest, said Price was once delayed on a commercial flight and forced to cancel a public event. “Wasting four hours in an airport and having the secretary cancel his event is not a good use of taxpayer money,” Yoest said.
A small number of Cabinet members, military officials and law enforcement officials are allowed to travel on government planes for national security reasons. Other federal officials may use government aircraft or chartered aircraft only in exceptional circumstances.
Robert Costa, Juliet Eilperin and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.