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Under Trump, the swamp takes to the air — in private jets — and the public pays

Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke. (Photos: Jacqueline Larma/AP, Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Andrew Harnik/AP)

The federal government will spend a little over $4 trillion this year, a 4 followed by 12 zeroes. In that light, the cost of chartering a private jet for a few hours is negligible, and the outcry over Tom Price’s travel predilections as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is far out of proportion to their significance for the federal budget.

As a matter of public perception, though, the $1 million or more Price has charged taxpayers for private air travel in less than a year seems the very definition of the swampish behavior President Trump campaigned on ending. And Trump himself is well aware of it.

Politico reported earlier in September that Price had been chartering private planes for travel, breaking a precedent with previous Health and Human Services heads. Among the flights was a $25,000 trip from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia — a trip that takes 2.5 hours driving or 90 minutes via Amtrak — and an $18,000 visit to Nashville that included 90 minutes of work and a lengthy lunch with his son.

Price released a statement Thursday saying he would repay the Treasury for the flights, but his department later told media outlets that he would pay just the prorated cost of his own seats—around $52,000—not the whole expense of the charters, more than $400,000. (He was generally accompanied by aides and security personnel who flew with him.) Following his statement Politico further reported that Price had spent an additional $500,000 of taxpayer funds using military planes while traveling with his wife in Europe and Asia.

As a congressman, Price consistently attacked what he called wasteful spending from Democrats, including criticizing then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “flying over our country in a private jet.” Twitter users have spent the past few days surfacing old tweets from Price’s time as a legislator in which he posed as a relentless guardian of the public purse.

“Reckless spending habits employed by Democrats in Washington are driving the debt,” wrote then Rep. Price in 2011. “We need #spendingcutsnow.”

“If you can’t budget, you can’t govern,” wrote Price in 2010.

Price has also been criticized for profiting off the trading of medical stock that his votes directly influenced. Asked if Price’s job was in jeopardy, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We’ll see what happens.” The Associated Press reported Friday that Trump had begun calling Price a “distraction.”

But the Health and Human Services secretary isn’t the only member of the administration to come under fire for spending on private travel.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, arrive on the Marine One helicopter with President Trump aboard the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford for its commissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., July 22, 2017. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent $12,375 chartering a plane owned by an oil executive so he could give a “motivational” speech to the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, the NHL expansion franchise owned by a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaigns.

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent nearly $60,000 on private flights. The EPA has also spent nearly $25,000 on the construction of a secure phone booth for Pruitt’s office. The New York Times reported in April that Pruitt had requested around-the-clock security, a departure from previous EPA heads that would require 10 new hires to fulfill.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has also been criticized for flights both taken and requested. Last month, Mnuchin and his wife used a government plane to travel to Kentucky, where they watched the solar eclipse at Fort Knox. (A Treasury spokesperson said Mnuchin reimbursed the government for the cost of his wife’s travel.) ABC News reported earlier this month that Mnuchin requested the use of a $25,000-per-hour government jet for a European vacation with his wife.

The Washington Post reported Friday that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin spent half of a 10-day European trip this summer sightseeing. Per the Post, the overseas jaunt took place less than two weeks after he signed a memo instructing top VA staffers to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.” Shulkin’s predecessor, Bob McDonald, took zero foreign trips during his two-and-a-half-year tenure. The VA announced Friday that the agency will begin posting details of the secretary’s travel online, including itineraries, and disclosing any use of government or private aircraft.

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