On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price apologized for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to make dozens of trips around the country on chartered private jets. Price waited days to express contrition, and seemingly only did so because President Donald Trump suggested his job was on the line. “We’ll see,” Trump said, when asked whether he would fire Price over the flights. Price promised to repay taxpayers and released a bizarre non-apology in which he came oh-so-close to admitting that his concern for taxpayers is just a pose. “I regret the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars,” the statement read. “All of my political career I’ve fought for the taxpayers. It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer.”
Price was being characteristically weaselly, but it didn’t end there. He also said that he would pay $51,887.30 for the flights. If that seems like a suspiciously low figure for numerous private jet flights, that’s because it is. Far from reimbursing taxpayers, Price is still ripping them off. It was then revealed that Price and his wife used military aircraft to make several overseas trips, at a cost of $500,000 to taxpayers. In contrast, Kathleen Sebelius, who served as HHS secretary under Barack Obama, did not use military aircraft once during her tenure.
But while Price’s brazen use of taxpayer money for luxury travel is notable, it’s hardly the exception in Trump’s Washington. The worry heading into Trump’s presidency is that he and his shifty children would funnel foreign money and taxpayer money into their hotels, properties, and golf clubs. Thus far, that fear has been well borne out: Foreign government officials and lobbyists are making themselves at home at Trump International Hotel and Mar-a-Lago, while Democratic lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would bar taxpayer dollars from being used to lodge members of the executive branch at properties owned by Trump and his family.
But the focus on Trump’s incentives for financial malfeasance, as well as the inordinate amount of attention he receives for doing anything, have distracted from a cabinet that is just as crooked and that’s taking every conceivable opportunity to stuff their pockets, deceive taxpayers, and rewrite policy for their own benefit.
Though egregious, the private plane scandal is largely in keeping with Tom Price’s whole deal. He has made a fuss for his entire career about the irresponsibility of government spending. At the same time, he has repeatedly appeared to use his office for financial gain. Price’s nomination to HHS hit turbulence when a number of financial scandals were uncovered.
In 2016, Price introduced legislation that would have benefited a medical device company whose stock he had purchased days earlier; that company then contributed to his campaign. The same year, he received a “sweetheart” stock deal from an Australian biotech company that was hoping to introduce a multiple sclerosis drug into the U.S. market. That stock, which Price purchased for only 18 cents a share, then went up 400 percent. Shortly after former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was fired by Trump, it came out that he had been investigating Price for insider trading.
On Thursday, BuzzFeed reported that Price had lobbied to reopen his department’s “executive dining room,” because its cafeteria wasn’t swanky enough. The dining room had been repurposed during the Obama administration, which cited its unnecessary expense.
Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on private air travel is the culmination of this indifferent attitude toward government ethics—and of bilking taxpayers at every turn. Price is such a hypocrite that he had railed against this exact same practice eight years earlier.
While Price is the best representative of Trump’s swamp cabinet, he’s hardly alone. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin projects a similar level of entitlement. Last month, it came out that he asked for the use of a government jet to go on his honeymoon with his new wife, Scottish actress Louise Linton. It was a ridiculous request. Mnuchin has made hundreds of millions as a hedge fund manager and movie producer of films like Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, and, of all things, Inherent Vice.
It was made even more ridiculous by his defense. “It is imperative that he have access to secure communications, and it is our practice to consider a wide range of options to ensure he has these capabilities during his travel, including the possible use of military aircraft,” a Treasury spokesman said in a statement. It’s worth noting, again, that Mnuchin is rich and was celebrating a wedding so lavish that it would have made Sean Parker blush.
While Price’s gaming of the system is galling and cynical, Mnuchin simply assumes that the government exists to benefit people like him at every opportunity. The honeymoon jet news came only a couple of weeks after Mnuchin and his wife used a government plane to travel to Kentucky to view the eclipse. Mnuchin’s wife defended the decision in her Instagram comments by calling someone poor and arguing that they deserved the plane because her husband had paid lots in taxes.
It’s an instructive window into their worldview: Mnuchin has made a lot, which means he’s been taxed a fair amount. Therefore he should just be able to take government things when he feels like it.
Rounding out this triumvirate is EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, who spent nearly $60,000 in taxpayer money on private air travel and who reportedly also spent $25,000 building a soundproof booth so he could talk to people without being overheard by potential leakers. Pruitt, like Mnuchin and Price, mixes entitlement with contempt. They swindle taxpayers so that they can create barriers—private air travel, private dining, private soundproof booths—that will allow them to enact their agenda with minimal transparency.
These grotesque expenditures represent a remarkable culture of corruption, which is only made more remarkable by the fact that they all really just got here. These scandals would have sunk cabinet secretaries in most other administrations, but they all benefit from the level of attention Trump receives. Their insidious actions have largely flown under the radar, as the country rightly frets over Trump’s racial demagoguery and his blundering toward nuclear war.
That shouldn’t be the case, especially as the administration moves forward on a massive tax cut for the wealthy that just so happens to be enormously beneficial to the fabulously wealthy people in Trump’s cabinet. Trump, Mnuchin, and economic adviser Gary Cohn—the supposedly moderate one—have all argued that tax reform is necessary. Corporate and individual tax rates are too high, they argue, and they are hampering economic growth. They claim, without a shred of evidence, that it’s not worth fretting over the enormous cost of their proposed tax cuts, because they’ll end up paying for themselves. And they say, again, with no evidence, that they will set up guardrails to prevent ultra-rich people from filing their taxes as corporations and receiving an even lower rate.
This is made all the more galling by the fact that the economy, as Trump frequently reminds everyone, is doing very well, particularly for the people at the very top. Trump just won an election by arguing, among other things, that the system was rigged and that, while the economy might technically be doing well, millions have been left out of the recovery. This tax reform package, however, only benefits the people who have already benefited from that recovery.
It’s also entirely in keeping with the scandals that have rocked Price, Mnuchin, and Pruitt over the past month. We’re being ruled by a bunch of kleptocrats, sure, but they are just the most visible signs of a party whose whole existence is geared around taking from the poor to give to the rich. The greatest theft in the works is one that the GOP has been trying to pull off for years.