Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price—the Donald Trump administration’s point man on putting a bullet between the Affordable Care Act’s eyes—ran up more than $400,000 in charter flights between May and September 23rd instead of flying commercial.
Update: At around 4:30pm on Friday, Tom Price resigned as secretary of Health and Human Services.
On Thursday, Price, who happens to be a multi-millionaire, ostensibly announced he would be reimbursing the federal government amid a widening and richly deserved scandal. “The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” he wrote in a statement, adding that he regrets “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars ... It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer.”
Here’s the thing: Price is using some highly specific weasel wording here. As CNN’s Jake Tapper noted, Price is still sticking taxpayers with the cost of all the HHS staff and others who traveled with him and only reimbursing the “equivalent of commercial business class seats” for himself, “not [the] cost of charter flights.” That comes to $51,887.31, or approximately $350,000 short of the costs that are currently known to have been racked up by his charter-flight habit.
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That didn’t stop numerous outlets from running headlines suggesting Price was actually making good on the costs, including Politico, PBS, AOL, Reuters and many local stations and papers. (Across the media, a number of outlets seemed to be updating headlines to reflect that the repayment is only a fraction of the costs, so Price’s soundbite may end up backfiring.)
And it turned out things are even worse than they first appeared. On Thursday evening, Politico reported Price also took an additional $500,000+ in international trips on military planes, bringing the total costs to over $1 million.
Price was quite fine running up the costs when he thought he could get away with it, but what seems to have sparked his accelerated apology tour is pressure from the White House itself. While several cabinet officials have booked expensive charter flights, Price’s use of the ultra-pricey service was extensive enough the HHS inspector general has launched an inquiry.
Trump has publicly mused about the possibility of firing Price over the charter jets, and some White House aides have gone further, saying he should be terminated—bad news at a time when administration officials are already fuming over the failure of repeated attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare with a screw-the-poor alternative.
Not helping things further is an additional report in Buzzfeed News that Price was attempting to reopen HHS’ executive dining room, a private perk which has been closed since the George W. Bush administration.