WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has been telling associates that his health chief has become a distraction, overshadowing his agenda and undermining his campaign promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was trying to hang on to his job Friday amid continuing questions over his use of private charter flights on official business at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.
Other cabinet secretaries scrambled to explain their own charter flights, and a House committee pressed ahead with a government-wide travel investigation.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dismissed the controversy over charter flights as “a little BS over travel,” but he said taxpayers do have the right to know official travel costs.
Price had offered public regrets and a partial repayment Thursday, but that didn’t seem to calm the furor, particularly in the White House.
Trump is deeply frustrated with Price and has grown increasingly annoyed by the stream of reports about the health secretary’s expensive air travel, according to three people familiar with Trump’s private discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
He has also told people close to him that he believes Price’s run of bad headlines stepped on the administration’s launch of its tax plan. And he has told people he believes Price didn’t do enough to sell the ill-fated GOP plan to “repeal and replace” the Obama health law.
Trump has considered firing Price but has not yet committed to doing so, according to one of the people who have spoken to him in recent days. Trump often muses about dismissing underlings but does not always follow through.
Though Trump has told these people close to him that he believes he has found a winning issue in attacking NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, he’s angry over the latest Republican failure to overturn “Obamacare” and irritated that he felt pressured into backing the losing candidate in the Alabama Senate primary this week.
Much of Trump’s ire over the health care failure has been aimed at the Republican-controlled Congress, but he also assigns some blame to Price, who he believes did not do a good job of selling the GOP plan. He mused aloud in a speech to a gathering of Boy Scouts in July that he would fire Price if the health bill did not pass, a line that was largely taken as a joke at the time.
The perception of Price jetting around — including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe — while GOP lawmakers labored to repeal “Obamacare” raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Price flew on military aircraft overseas.
The controversy was a catalyst for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to launch a government-wide travel investigation. The panel is seeking detailed records from the White House and 24 departments and agencies on the use of government planes as well as private charters.
Other cabinet secretaries were doing their own explaining:
—Interior’s Zinke said he’s taken three charter flights while in office, including a $12,375 late-night trip from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in June. Zinke said no commercial flight was available at the time he planned to fly for a speech to Western governors. He also went on a military flight with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to view wildfires in Montana. All of his travel was approved in advance by Interior’s ethics officials “after extensive due diligence,” Zinke said.
—Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he has not used private aircraft for official business but has taken six trips on military aircraft. Information about his official travel will be posted on the department’s website, he said.
—At the Treasury Department, the inspector general is investigating all requests for and use of government aircraft, including those by Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who came under fire for requesting a government aircraft to use on his honeymoon. The request was later withdrawn.
—The EPA said four non-commercial flights taken by Administrator Scott Pruitt were pre-approved by ethics lawyers. The agency’s inspector general opened an inquiry last month into Pruitt’s frequent taxpayer-funded travel on commercial planes. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Pruitt often spends weekends at his Tulsa home.
Price’s travels were first reported last week by Politico, which said cheaper commercial flights were a viable option in many cases. That prompted a review by the HHS inspector general’s office to see if federal travel regulations were followed.
A former congressman from Georgia regarded as a conservative policy expert, Price said his travel was approved by the department he heads. He said he’d write a personal check to reimburse taxpayers for his travel on charter flights taken on government business. And he pledged to fly commercial — “no exceptions.”
The repayment — $51,887.31, according to Price’s office — covers only the secretary’s seat. Price did not address the overall cost of the flights, expected to be much higher.