President Donald Trump and his top aides are fuming over Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of expensive private jets, with some advisers privately calling for Price’s ouster.
Trump rebuked Price in sharp terms Wednesday but declined to bat down speculation that the HHS chief could be fired for his lavish spending of taxpayer dollars.
“We’ll see,” the president told reporters when asked whether Price would stay in his job.
“I was looking into it, and I will look into it. And I will tell you personally, I’m not happy about it,” Trump said. “I am not happy about it. I’m going to look at it. I am not happy about it, and I let him know it.”
Administration officials said that Price is safe for now.
POLITICO has revealed that Price has flown 26 times on private aircraft since last May at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a break with the practice of his predecessors, who generally took commercial flights.
Some Trump advisers are urging Trump to get rid of Price, according to three people familiar with the conversations.
“His conduct is pretty much indefensible,” one senior administration official said. “I don’t know how you defend it.”
White House officials said Trump was shocked by Price’s behavior, especially because he nurtured a reputation as a fiscal conservative during his time as a House lawmaker.
Two administration officials said the steady drumbeat of reports on Price’s travel has made the issue impossible to ignore.
The president is annoyed with cable news coverage of Price’s travel, one of these people said. “He goes, ‘Why did he do this? It makes no sense,’” the official said.
Administration officials said Trump’s anger at Price may not translate to his ouster. Price is the latest Trump administration official to get on the president’s bad side. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are among those who have run afoul of the president.
Although several high-profile officials have been pushed out of the administration, others have made their way back into the president’s good graces. Officials also noted that, despite the public image he earned as the star of “The Apprentice,” Trump is often reluctant to fire people. And he sometimes takes weeks to make a final decision.
But Price was already on thin ice before the jet stories broke. Trump and other senior administration officials have complained that he wasn’t effective in wooing House members on the Hill for Obamacare repeal initiatives, one of the reasons the former House Republican was tapped for the job.
Price has also been absent for several Oval Office meetings where repealing the law was discussed. Many of the meetings on Capitol Hill were led by Vice President Mike Pence, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Seema Verma or Marc Short, the legislative affairs head.
Additionally, Trump, who cares deeply about personal chemistry, does not have a close connection with Price, one of the administration officials said. Few senior White House officials have been willing to defend him this week.
“Price isn’t happy,” one senior administration official said. “Wouldn’t shock me if this ends in him stepping down, especially after failing on health care over and over.”
White House officials also believe HHS mishandled its response to the jet stories.
HHS seemed unconcerned by the stories at first and felt there was little need to respond, according to two administration officials. One of these officials said there was no urgency — and the agency didn’t quickly share facts with the White House.
HHS has said Price did not violate federal travel regulations, which allow for chartered aircraft when “no scheduled commercial airline service is reasonably available.” A POLITICO review, however, showed that many of Price’s private flights were matched closely by commercial options available at a fraction of the cost.
In an interview last weekend, Price said he would stop taking taxpayer-funded private flights, telling Fox News that “We’ve heard the criticism. We’ve heard the concerns. We take that very seriously and have taken it to heart.”
Among the private flights booked by Price was a June day trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where he toured a medical dispensary, spoke at a health summit organized by a friend and had lunch with his son. Price also took a chartered flight last month to a resort in Georgia where he and his wife own property, arriving a day and a half before he was to address a medical conference.
The White House has sought to distance itself from Price’s behavior, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declining to offer a defense of the secretary’s flight choices and telling reporters this week that they were not “White House-approved travel.”
HHS spokespeople did not immediately return an email seeking a response from Price.
The secretary’s travels have also drawn the attention of the House Oversight Committee, which launched an investigation Wednesday into the use of private aircraft by Price and other senior government officials. The HHS inspector general has also launched an investigation into Price’s use of chartered planes.
“We welcome this review,” Price said of the inspector general’s review in his Fox News interview last weekend. “We want to make certain that we have the full confidence of not just this administration, but the American people.”
That Price has made a habit of chartering aircraft for his travels as a Cabinet member is especially notable given his past criticism of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Price, then a member of Congress, lambasted in 2010 for “flying over our country in a luxury jet.”
Tara Palmeri, Eliana Johnson and Annie Karni contributed to this report.
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