During a Cabinet meeting at the White House last October, President Trump extolled the virtues of the men and women surrounding him at the table.
“A great trust has been placed upon each member of our Cabinet,” he declared. “We have a Cabinet that — there are those that are saying it’s one of the finest group of people ever assembled . . . as a Cabinet. And I happen to agree with that.”
Less than five months later, Trump finds himself presiding over a Cabinet in which a number of members stand accused of living large at taxpayer expense — often by aggressively embracing the trappings of their high government posts.
At least a half-dozen current or former Trump Cabinet officials have been mired in federal investigations over everything from high-end travel and spending on items such as a soundproof phone booth to the role of family members weighing in on official business. On Wednesday alone, newly disclosed documents revealed fresh details about spending scandals at both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“If the government is going to be run efficiently, he’s got to clean up a lot of the messes that have gone on at these agencies and, to be honest, replace a lot of people,” said Shermichael Singleton, a former adviser to HUD Secretary Ben Carson who left after his criticism of Trump surfaced during the vetting process.
The controversies surrounding members of Trump’s Cabinet have caused upheaval within the administration, prompting White House officials to scramble in an effort to avert any further political fallout and to summon agency leaders for face-to-face ethics meetings.
Revelations about repeated use of chartered airplanes forced the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in September. More recently, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has continued to wrestle with the fallout of news that taxpayers covered the expenses for his wife during a 10-day trip to Europe last year — and more recently that his chief of staff doctored an email and made false statements to justify the payments.
Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has faced public criticism and the scrutiny of government investigators for his own frequent first-class travels and for other expenditures he made using public funding. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that records showed a soundproof phone booth installed in Pruitt’s office cost $43,000 — $18,000 more than previously disclosed.
At the Interior Department, Secretary Ryan Zinke has faced inquiries about his travel practices, and last fall an official in the agency’s inspector general office wrote that Zinke had failed to properly document his trips since taking office.
And at HUD, public records released this week detail how Carson’s wife was closely involved in the redecorating of his office at the agency, including the purchase of a $31,561 dining set.
Barry Bennett, who served as Carson’s presidential campaign manager and then informally advised Trump’s 2016 campaign, wrote in an email that, in many instances, Cabinet members are unaware of the actual costs stemming from their actions. He said Carson often complained about staying in fancy hotels on the campaign trail because their rooms didn’t readily offer an ironing board and iron — which he relied on to press his own clothes.
Still, Bennett added, “these are unforced errors” that the White House needs to halt.
“Staff needs to get better and principals need to get smarter about asking questions like, ‘How much does this cost?’ ” he said. “All of these folks are all new to Washington power, and so are their staffs. At their power level, anything is possible.”
Even as new revelations have surfaced, in part through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, Trump’s deputies have pushed back against accusations that they have misspent taxpayer funds.
During a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Zinke defended his use of charter planes for various trips, including to Montana, Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He labeled questions about his travels as “innuendos,” arguing that his predecessor at the department took similar trips at taxpayer expense.
“I resent the fact of your insults. I resent the fact they’re misleading,” Zinke told Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who had asked him about a $12,375 flight Zinke chartered from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, added later, “I’ve been shot at before, I’m very comfortable with it. Do right, fear no man, do the best you can.”
Carson has used his personal Twitter account to defend his family’s integrity, including after The Post reported that HUD lawyers warned him that he risked running afoul of federal ethics rules by allowing his son and daughter-in-law to help organize a listening tour to Baltimore last summer.
Referring to a complaint to HUD’s special counsel about redecorating his office, Carson tweeted on Feb. 28, “We suspect, based on past attempts, that they will continue to probe and make further accusations even without evidence or substantiation. We will continue to ask for God’s guidance to do what is right.”
Last month, at least four Cabinet members — Carson, Pruitt, Shulkin and Zinke — met separately with White House Cabinet Secretary William McGinley to discuss proper ethics practices, according to multiple administration officials familiar with the sessions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings.
The meetings, first reported by CNN, included handouts with ethics advice and a discussion about how not to violate federal laws when traveling to campaign for political candidates. The tips included, “You are the best guardian of your reputation. Your record-keeping practices must be designed with a purpose to prove innocence at the complaint phase or with the press,” and “Even if legal, does not mean you should do it — always consider optics.”
The sessions “were not confrontational, were not adversarial,” said one White House official.
“We are in the process of meeting with all of the Cabinet for discussions,” the official added, “just so they can understand that the level of scrutiny is so high that they need to be aware of perception, in addition to ethical and lawful behavior.”
At times, White House officials have made it clear to outsiders that they are scrutinizing Cabinet members closely. Two weeks ago, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly met with veterans service organizations to discuss the current turmoil at VA. Several representatives told him that Shulkin was being undermined at the department by an insurrection of high-level White House appointees who disagree with many of his policies, according to three people in attendance.
They expected to get sympathy from Kelly. But Kelly told the representatives that from his perspective, their observations made a good case that Shulkin should be fired because the secretary had not been able to keep his troops in line.
Singleton, a conservative political commentator who serves as communications director for Howard Stirk Holdings, said some of the conservatives he spends time with have “lowered” expectations of Trump given the recent spate of scandals, “because the president promised he would not do things the way they had been done in the past.”
“There is some disappointment,” he said. “But those people remain particularly loyal to him,” he said.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.