WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price testifies during a Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on March 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C. The hearing discussed the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services.(Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Before private flights, Price criticized them
00:48 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Peggy Drexler: HHS Secretary Tom Price has used private jet for many government-funded trips to "talk to real people"

Others in Trump Cabinet have done same in egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars -- taking cues in this behavior from their boss, President Trump, she says

CNN  — 

So the Trump administration says that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price needs a private jet, as he is very busy.

Aren’t we all?

After Politico reported earlier this week that Price had taken five private flights in a single week – one of which was a half-hour trip from D.C. to Philly – a spokeswoman for the HHS defended the travel, saying it was intended “to get him outside of Washington, D.C., [and] talk to real people on the ground.”

You know what they say: There’s no better way to be a man of the people than by flying private.

Although some government positions require private air travel – including the offices of President, vice president, attorney general and FBI director – it’s unusual for Cabinet members to charter private flights, due to the cost.

Which is perhaps why Price himself has been critical of private air travel in the past, calling a 2009 Democratic proposal to buy four new jets “another example of fiscal irresponsibility” (declaring at the time that “the spending binge has got to stop”) and criticizing then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi for being un-American because she often flew the private Air Force jet afforded to her with her title. (Subsequent speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan chose not to use the jet.)

On the one hand, fast and loose use of government funds is nothing new in the world of Washington. Who could forget the controversy (with pictures!) over the General Services Administration official who enjoyed wine while soaking in the tub in a lavish hotel room during a scouting trip, one of eight it turned out, to source a venue for a conference? Or the one about the Secret Service agents partying with strippers in El Salvador?

But for the Trump administration, it appears par for the course – not just an occasional exception. After all, Price, os the only HHS secretary to have “flown private” with regularity (“at least 24 flights on private charter planes at taxpayers’ expense since early May,” says Politico/)

He is not alone: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, used an Air Force jet to visit Kentucky in August for a work trip that (coincidentally) would allow them to catch the solar eclipse while aloft, and Linton to boast on Instagram about the Valentino shoes she wore as she deplaned.

The Treasury Department later said that the couple would be reimbursing the government for travel costs when Linton travels with Mnuchin on official business.

Mnuchin had also asked for a military flight for the couple’s honeymoon, the Treasury Department confirmed (the couple withdrew the request, which prompted an inquiry by the department’s inspector general anyway). EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, has used government funds for weekend trips home to Oklahoma and has requested that a “a fleet of bodyguards,” as one report put it, be available to protect him from, among others, angry environmentalists 24 hours a day.

And on Thursday, Buzzfeed reported that other Trump administration agency heads – including Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon – regularly use private jets for government business.

This use of taxpayer dollars is egregious, all right, but should we be surprised? After all, these people take their cues from the top. Outrageous, privileged behavior like this has surrounded the President since before he was even elected, for example when he refused to release his tax returns and publicly invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Since becoming President, Donald Trump has continued to misuse power, funds and the media in all sorts of ways, from hiring members of his family to making frequent, wasteful trips to his various properties, to using the presidency to promote those properties – all while on American’ payroll and all while promising to cut wasteful spending.

It’s a presidency mired in non-convention at best, extreme ethical breaches at worst. The irony, of course, is that all these offenses combined in one compromised presidency serve to make the individual offenses less noticeable. We’ve now come to expect egregiousness from the Trump administration. His Cabinet flies private? Of course they do!

That Trump and his Cabinet feel entitled to the advantages they take is not surprising, given their backgrounds and wealth. Mnuchin is a former hedge fund manager thought to be worth many millions. They may believe they have “earned” the right to spend government money because of their high income and the taxes they pay on it – and, well, they certainly flew private back when they were just “regular people.”

As Linton, who is a Scottish actress, snidely asked a critic of that Kentucky trip in an Instagram post that went viral, “Have you given more to the economy than me or my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes or in self-sacrifice to your country?” (Her critic works full time as a health care products manager.)

Trump, meanwhile, is their model. He has not been bothered by reports of how much it’s costing to cover his trips to Florida, or to cover protection of his large family, including the significant cost of the Trump Tower residence in New York City for the first lady.

And the public has not reacted with the sort of outrage that such expenditures might warrant. But can you blame them? What with all the major natural disasters, threat of nuclear war, Russia investigations?

As luck has it for Trump and Co., there’s so much else going on in this mess of an administration that it’s not at all surprising that the overspending of a flashy businessman who works for the American people gets less attention than it should. It’s not appropriate behavior for one in government service, of course. But does anyone really believe Trump, and his cohorts, are in service to anyone but themselves?