The image of a top government official, a Washington fat cat, blowing taxpayer money to pay for private chartered airplanes is exactly what President Trump seemed to have in mind when he promised voters he would “drain the swamp.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of expensive private jets for routine government travel lost him his job Friday when the White House announced the president had accepted his resignation after days of controversy.
But beyond the eye-roll irony of the scandal enveloping a Republican politician who promoted himself as a penny-pinching budget hawk, Price is not the only example of waste, carelessness or entitlement in an administration that pledged to speak for the little guy.
At least four other Cabinet officials have taken unusual chartered or military air trips on the public dime. There is also the matter of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 secure phone booth and the unauthorized use of private email by White House adviser Jared Kushner and others — a development that follows a campaign where Trump lambasted Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system when serving as secretary of state.
Candidate Trump would have been appalled.
“A vote for Hillary is a vote to surrender our government to public corruption, graft and cronyism that threatens the very foundations of our constitutional system,” Trump said during an Oct. 29 speech.
He went on to describe his broader belief that public corruption and cronyism were eating away at voters’ faith in government — a situation he would remedy.
“I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear and to heed the words I am about to say,” Trump said. “When we win on Nov. 8, we are going to Washington, D.C., and we are going to drain the swamp.”
But from the day he was elected, ethics experts have complained that many of Trump’s actions have been at odds with his vow to clean up Washington.
He has famously refused to release his tax returns, something every president has done for decades in the interest of accountability. He did not divest his eponymous business interests and holds official events at Trump-owned and branded properties.
He prefers to spend weekends at private, Trump-owned golf clubs. He traveled to his golf club in New Jersey on Friday.
Transportation, staffing and other costs are paid by the taxpayer, as they were for the far-less-frequent family vacations taken by recent presidents.
His administration has hired lobbyists — the very definition of swampiness — although it also has issued new revolving-door rules. Trump has issued waivers for more than a dozen officials that allow them to continue to interact with former clients, something the Obama administration also did.
And the Trump administration readily risked appearance problems by hiring multimillionaire corporate titans such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, and Wall Streeters such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic adviser Gary Cohn.
Price said Thursday that he was reimbursing the government for what he said was the cost of his seat on chartered aircraft — a fraction of the total cost of private air travel that included trips to easily accessible places such as Philadelphia.
“Unprecedented,” Price said of the reimbursement during a confessional interview Thursday on Fox. It was not enough to keep his job.
“He’s not the only one,” said Richard W. Painter, who was the top White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “This is just ridiculous, and this stuff just keeps piling up. There’s an attitude here.”
Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor, has used his Twitter feed to chronicle what he calls a “me too” culture of excess and sloppiness in the Trump White House.
That Trump hired Price at all shows a willingness to look the other way at potential conflicts of interest, Painter said. The Georgia Republican faced questions during his confirmation process about his investment activities involving the health-care industry when he was a member of Congress involved in sponsoring and advocating legislation that could affect industry stock prices.
It’s a long way from the two battle cries of campaign-trail Trump’s regular-guy revolution, “Drain the swamp” and “Lock her up.”
The first was a catchall for cleaning house in Washington and Trump’s brand of blunt, “You’re fired”-type leadership. The second was a reference to what Trump called Clinton’s “illegal” use of a private email system for all of her government work.
Kushner is among a handful of White House aides found to have used nongovernment email for a portion of their government work, against White House directives.
Trump’s critics say no one should be surprised that he hasn’t followed through on his campaign promise. They argue that the mere idea of a flamboyantly rich New York real estate mogul as the champion of workaday lunch buckets in Middle America was silly.
“The tone on this stuff gets set at the top,” said Brian Fallon, spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration.
“Tom Price’s wasteful jet-setting is not causing Trump embarrassment because it violates any kind of reform mind-set within the Trump administration. No such mind-set exists,” Fallon said. “It is simply because Price got caught and is reminding everyone of how Trump has turned Washington into an even bigger swamp than it was in the first place.”