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Tom Price apologizes for private-charter flights, pledges to repay taxpayers nearly $52,000

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says he will repay the federal treasury for some of his recent travels. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

This post has been updated.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Thursday that he would reimburse the government for a fraction of the costs of his flights on charter planes in recent months, after coming under sharp criticism from members of both parties for the expensive practice.

“Today, I will write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price said in a statement, adding that he will no longer take private planes while serving as secretary. “No exceptions.”

House and Senate investigators are pressing Price, as well as other Cabinet members, to disclose the extent to which they have relied on noncommercial transportation to travel across the United States and overseas. The recent revelations about these costly trips on military and private aircraft, at a time when the same officials have proposed dramatic cuts in the agencies they oversee, have put the administration on the defensive.

Price has come under the most intense scrutiny — President Trump chastised him publicly Wednesday and suggested his job was no longer secure — but lawmakers are also demanding probes of travel by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, according to congressional oversight records, costing taxpayers more than $58,000, while Mnuchin is under investigation by the Treasury inspector general for his use of a government plane to visit Kentucky as well as one for a trip from New York City to Washington.

A private plane chartered this summer by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana, cost taxpayers $12,375, according to a department spokesman. Zinke also used private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands.

Members of President Trump's Cabinet have taken noncommercial flights at the expense of taxpayers, and Trump says he's "not happy." (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Last week, Price’s office explained that he had turned to chartered jets when needed for the most efficient and effective travel in managing his department and maintaining contact with the public.

“This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people,” said Charmaine Yoest, his assistant secretary for public affairs.

An HHS official said Thursday that Price would write a check for $51,887.31, which appears to cover the cost of his seat on chartered flights but not those of his staffers. Politico, which first reported on Price’s repeated use of chartered jets, has estimated the total expense of the trips exceeded $400,000 — and it reported early Thursday evening that his White House-approved flights on military planes to Africa, Europe and Asia cost more than $500,000.

Yoest said in an interview that Price needed the military aircraft for secure communications during the overseas trips, which included roughly half a dozen aides. His wife, Betty, also joined him, she added, but Price covered the cost of her travel.

“Being able to maintain secure communications with the secretary is also something of particular concern without a deputy secretary,” she said, and the number of aides accompanying him depends “on who are the experts he needs have with him.”

Both of Price’s overseas trips addressed issues of global health security. His trip to Africa and Europe in May included stops in Liberia, the site of the 2014 Ebola outbreak; the first Group of 20 health ministers’ summit in Berlin; and a meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. His August trip to China, Vietnam and Japan consisted of meetings with foreign officials and health experts.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said using “military aircraft for Cabinet and other essential travelers is sometimes an appropriate and necessary use of resources” and that such requests are closely reviewed. Officials have “limited support missions to travel that is central to the White House’s mission.”

Although the secretary said in his statement that his private-charter travel was approved by legal and HHS officials, he added that he regretted “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.”

“All of my political career I’ve fought for the taxpayers,” Price said. “It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials.”

Price said he will continue to cooperate fully with the HHS inspector general’s office, which is reviewing the flights. He also said he has initiated his own departmental review to determine if any changes or reforms are necessary.

On Wednesday, Trump was noncommittal about whether he would ask Price to resign. Responding to questions from reporters at the White House, Trump said he was “looking into” details of the secretary’s travels and that “personally, I’m not happy about it, and I let him know it.”

It is unclear whether Price’s gesture to defray part of the flights’ cost will be enough to save his job; the White House did not comment on that matter after his announcement.

At a briefing before Price issued his statement Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president and his aides were waiting to see what happened with the HHS inspector general’s probe and other investigations also underway. House Democrats, who requested the inspector general’s involvement, have said Price’s flights appeared to violate federal law intended to ensure that executive branch officials use the most economical travel available.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Trump on Thursday to impose a governmentwide ban on the use of charter flights by administration officials and to detail “what steps the administration has taken to ensure that Cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold and the spirit and the letter of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply.”

Asked about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s taxpayer-funded travel on private planes, President Trump says he’s “not happy about it.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

That followed a request Tuesday by the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee that Price and more than 20 other agency heads list all use of private, charter aircraft and government-owned aircraft by political employees since the president’s inauguration.

The Treasury inspector general is reviewing all of Mnuchin’s flights and his travel requests, including one his office made for a government jet to fly him and his wife, Louise Linton, on a honeymoon trip to Europe this summer.

“We’re going through this process; we’re going to do a full review and we’ll see what happens,” Sanders told reporters.

“To be clear, the White House does not have a role on the front end of approving private charter flights at agencies,” she said. “That’s something we’re certainly looking into from this point forward and have asked a halt to be put, particularly at HHS, on any private charter flights.”

Even some of Price’s longtime allies have questioned his frequent use of private aircraft to journey to places where he owns property, such as St. Simons Island, Ga., and Nashville. One trip included a get-together with his son.

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 the juxtaposition of the secretary’s lavish trips and the budget cuts he is seeking posed a serious problem.

“Optics matter in politics,” Cole said.

Lena H. Sun and John Wagner contributed to this report.