Paying the Price for racking up huge travel bill

Already in trouble with President Donald Trump for months of unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price failed to defuse his anger by offering regret and a partial reimbursement.
Already in trouble with President Donald Trump for months of unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price failed to defuse his anger by offering regret and a partial reimbursement. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US health secretary quits over use of private planes for govt business

WASHINGTON • Mr Tom Price, the United States Health and Human Services Secretary, has quit under pressure after racking up at least US$400,000 (S$543,000) in travel bills for chartered flights and undermining President Donald Trump's promise to drain the swamp of a corrupt and entitled capital.

Already in trouble with Mr Trump for months of unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, Mr Price failed to defuse the President's anger by offering regret and a partial reimbursement.

His departure was the latest from an administration buffeted by turbulence at the top, and capped a week of setbacks for the President.

"I'm not happy, OK?" Mr Trump told reporters asking about Mr Price as he was leaving for his New Jersey golf club for the weekend, barely an hour before the resignation was announced. "I can tell you, I'm not happy."

He called Mr Price "a very good man" but added that the secretary's offer to pay back the government for just part of the cost of the flights "would be unacceptable". Mr Price had offered on Thursday to pay back US$51,887 - which he said was the cost of his seat on the trips - of at least US$400,000 spent.

A multimillionaire and orthopaedic surgeon by training, Mr Price ran afoul of one of Mr Trump's most consequential campaign pledges - to drain the swamp of Washington privilege.

To many voters, it was a threshold promise. The firestorm came as the President was already on the defensive with his base, as the incumbent Republican senator he backed in an Alabama primary race lost to an insurgent channelling Mr Trump's election movement.

  • $400k

    What Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price incurred in bills for chartered flights (in US dollars). It is equivalent to S$543,000.

    $51,887

    What the multimillionaire and orthopaedic surgeon offered to reimburse the government (in US dollars), saying it was the cost of his seat on the trips.

"It's hard to see how a Cabinet secretary can drain the swamp from 42,000ft in the plush interior of a taxpayer-funded Gulfstream 4," said Ms Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk show host and Trump supporter who, like others, defied the President by backing insurgent Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Mr Trump berated Mr Price in the Oval Office on Friday for about two hours before heading out to meet reporters, people informed about the meeting said. They added that all Cabinet travel requests now must be cleared by the White House.

The White House announcement of Mr Price's departure was sparse, with none of the customary thanks for his service. It said simply that he had "offered his resignation earlier today and the President accepted".

In his resignation letter, Mr Price said he regretted "that the recent events have created a distraction" from the administration's objectives. "Success on these issues is more important than any one person," he added.

  • Other high-profile exits

  • United States Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is the latest official to join a growing list of resignations and firings. Other departures include:

    STEPHEN BANNON

    The White House chief strategist was the driving force behind President Donald Trump's anti-globalisation and pro-nationalist agenda until he was fired in mid-August. A caustic presence in the West Wing, Mr Bannon often clashed with other Trump aides over trade, the war in Afghanistan, taxes and immigration.

    SEAN SPICER

    He resigned as White House press secretary in July, ending a turbulent six-month tenure, after Mr Trump named Mr Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director.

    ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI

    The communications director was given the boot in July after just 10 days on the job, after his profanity-laced interview with The New Yorker magazine was published.

    REINCE PRIEBUS

    The White House chief of staff was replaced by Mr John Kelly in July. The former chairman of the Republican National Committee was said to have lost Mr Trump's confidence after major legislative items failed to pass the US Congress.

    JAMES COMEY

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation director was fired in May as he was leading an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia to influence the US presidential election outcome last year.

    MICHAEL FLYNN

    He resigned in February as national security adviser following disclosures that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the US before Mr Trump took office and also misled Vice-President Mike Pence about the conversations.

    SALLY YATES

    The acting attorney-general was fired in January after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to enforce the President's immigration ban.

    REUTERS, NYTIMES

Mr Trump tapped Mr Don Wright, a deputy assistant secretary for health and the director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, to serve as acting secretary.

Mr Price's job was on the line since the first of reports by Politico, on Sept 19, about his extensive use of chartered aircraft. He has flown on 26 trips this year on private aircraft totalling US$400,000, it said.

He may not be the only senior official to face anger over travel bills. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used a chartered plane for flights, including a US$12,000 trip to give a speech in Las Vegas. Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin took his wife on a 10-day trip to Europe, mixing business and sightseeing.

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Paying the Price for racking up huge travel bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe