WASHINGTON – So are there members of President Trump’s Cabinet who don’t travel by private jet? Put another way, do any of our top officials understand the difference between public service and personal luxury?
Trump may not have Made America Great Again for you or me, but he’s made it pretty sweet for political appointees who want to jet around like billionaires at other people’s expense. Nice work if you can get it.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price seems to be the most egregious abuser. According to Politico, Price has taken at least 24 flights on private chartered aircraft since early May, at a total cost of around $300,000. Price hasn’t picked up the tab, of course. We the taxpayers have.
Now, everyone understands that the secretary of defense would take an expensive military flight to visit the troops in a war zone, or that the secretary of state would be flown in his own government plane to an international conference, or that the secretary of homeland security might charter a jet to reach the scene of some domestic crisis. But the secretary of HHS? Did some regional office need him to make an emergency delivery of printer ink?
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Politico cited a June 6 flight Price took to and from Nashville for a morning appearance and an afternoon speech. The cost was a staggering $17,760 – while commercial flights that would have allowed Price to complete the same itinerary cost as little as $202.
There is nothing normal about this. Previous HHS secretaries have flown commercial. I don’t think it should be mandatory for Cabinet officials to squeeze themselves into coach, as members of Congress often do when flying back and forth to their constituencies; business class, when available, would seem appropriate. But chartering a jet for a non-urgent hop to Nashville is simply beyond the pale – especially given that Price seems to have had personal reasons for making that trip.
It turns out that Price’s son lives in Nashville, and that Price owns a condo there. In fact, Price found time during that June 6 trip – supposedly so chock-filled that he needed to go by private jet – to meet his son for lunch.
In August, also according to Politico, Price flew in a chartered Learjet – paid for by you and me – to St. Simons Island, Georgia, a pricey resort where he and his wife own property. He was attending a Medical Association of Georgia retreat, where he was scheduled to give a Sunday speech. Why, then, with his oh-so-busy schedule, did he need to arrive on Friday afternoon?
Price is not the only offender. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four charter and military flights that cost a total of more than $58,000, The Washington Post reported this week.
One of Pruitt’s flights on chartered aircraft was an Aug. 4 trip from Denver to Durango, Colorado, for a meeting with Gov. John Hickenlooper at a site where the EPA accidentally triggered a spill of pollutants two years ago. The EPA explained that the commercial flight Pruitt had planned to take was delayed. It turns out, however, that Hickenlooper offered to take Pruitt to Durango on his state-owned plane, which presumably would have cost the EPA nothing. The problem was that the governor had room to accommodate Pruitt but not his entourage.
That was obviously a deal-breaker for Pruitt, who travels about the country and even his headquarters building with Beyonce-level security. Unlike any previous EPA administrator, Pruitt demands around-the-clock protection by agency enforcement agents – requiring triple the manpower his predecessors needed. Pruitt also is spending nearly $25,000 to construct a secure, soundproof communications booth in his office. But my point here isn’t about paranoia. It’s about imagined grandeur.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin inquired about using a $25,000-an-hour military plane for his European honeymoon last month. That didn’t work out, but he did take a government plane on a trip to Fort Knox that seemed suspiciously timed to view the recent solar eclipse.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has acknowledged using private jets. But she’s a billionaire and pays the cost herself, as did billionaire Penny Pritzker when she was commerce secretary in the Obama administration.
For the wannabes, however, all this grasping is not just wasteful but unseemly. Most of the Cabinet officials I’ve known over the years saw their jobs as a sacred trust. They felt deeply responsible toward the American people and the dedicated personnel in their agencies.
For Price, Pruitt and Mnuchin, apparently, it’s more about living large.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.