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The Trump administration’s private plane problem

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks during a HHS listening session in the Roosevelt Room on June 21. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has repeatedly promised to drain the swamp in Washington. He might want to check in on that effort at the capital area's airports.

For the third time in a few weeks, a member of his 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.

Politico's Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan did some great sleuthing on Price's trips, which have previously been pretty secretive. They found that last week he used charters to travel to Maine, then from Maine to New Hampshire, then back to Washington, and then round trip to Philadelphia. The trips took place over a span of three days and likely cost at least $60,000, they estimated based on conversations with the charter companies.

There are two main problems with this. The first is that these trips — and especially the Philadelphia one — were so close to Washington that it's difficult to understand why charters would be necessary.

The stated policy of the government is to use charters only when commercial travel isn't feasible, and Price's use of charters seems to break with how the Obama administration's HHS secretaries used them. While the Obama officials did use charters, their aides told Politico it was when they were going to places that weren't accessible, like remote areas of Alaska.

Philadelphia is reachable via a very short commercial flight that runs regularly out of Washington — including, Politico found, at almost the exact same time Price's charter departed. And then there is the preferred method for many: A two-hour train ride on Amtrak (or an hour and a half on the faster Acela trains). It would seem really difficult to justify the use of a charter for that less-than-140-mile trip — and Price's spokesmen aren't even attempting to, declining to comment to Politico.

The second problem is the H-word: Hypocrisy. Price is opening himself up to that charge given his past commentary and emphasis on fiscal conservatism.

Price, who was among the leading fiscal conservatives in the House and chaired both the Budget Committee and the conservative Republican Study Committee before joining Trump's Cabinet, in 2009 tweeted his appearance on CNBC in which he decried the overuse of — you guessed it — private planes.

“This is just another example of fiscal responsibility run amok in Congress right now," Price said of an effort to buy private planes to transport government officials, military and members of Congress.

Context is key here. Price wasn't talking about charters, but rather about actually purchasing new government airplanes, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars — not tens of thousands. He was also taking issue with the need to have private planes for members of Congress, and not necessarily Cabinet officials. And this conversation was taking place in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, when the idea of the government spending huge money on new planes seemed even more tone-deaf and ill-timed.

So it's not apples-to-apples. But Price is a man who has decried “Washington's reckless spending culture," and his nomination at HHS was especially cheered by those who seek to fight against “government waste."

Against that backdrop, it might behoove him to at least explain why he needed a charter flight to travel 140 miles. And when you add in Mnuchin's own plane problems and Trump's pledge to “drain the swamp," the administration might want to take a hard look at its own plane policies.