Less than an hour before Donald Trump accepted the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the President made very clear why his Cabinet secretary was being let go.
“I don’t like the optics,” Trump said, adding: “We’re renegotiating NAFTA, we renegotiating so many things and making much better deals. You’ll be seeing other things come up. So I don’t like to see somebody that perhaps there’s the perception that it wasn’t right.”
Just in case you missed the point, Trump also noted: “I was disappointed because I didn’t like it, cosmetically or otherwise.”
“Optics.” “Perception.” “Cosmetically.”
You get the idea.
Price was fired not because of the more than two dozen private flights he took at taxpayer expense. He was fired because he violated Trump’s first principle: Never, ever make the boss look bad – especially in the press.
Price had become a major distraction for Trump and his White House. On a week that Trump wanted the focus to be on his tax reform proposal, Price made the storyline all about how the President wasn’t draining the swamp as promised. (Yes, Trump also picked a fight with the NFL, got caught flat-footed on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and saw his preferred candidate lose a Senate race in Alabama. But Trump isn’t going to blame Trump for a bad week. Come on! Pay attention!)
Unlike, say, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who has had his fair share of private plane issues too, Price lacked the personal relationship with Trump that might have saved him. Whereas Mnuchin was a wealthy New Yorker (like Trump), Price was a southern doctor who had spent more than a decade in Congress. He was not, and is not, uber-rich.
Trump then carried no real personal loyalty or investment in Price. And so, when Price started generating bad headlines, he was already starting in a bad place. He made things worse with his attempted defense of his private plane penchant – noting that he had sought the approval of the administration before each of the flights and offering to pay $52,000 back to the government to cover the cost of his seat on these planes.
Mistake #1: Blaming the administration for all of this. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was quick to note Thursday that the White House had no pre-approval of Price’s flights. (That doesn’t mean Price was lying; it just means that no one inside the actual White House signed off.)
Mistake #2: Offering to repay $52,000 when the total cost of the flights was in excess of $1 million. “It was over when he offered to pay part of the cost,” one House member who served with Price told CNN’s Lauren Fox. “That’s admitting full guilt without full penance.” (Also: Don’t underestimate the fact that Price’s lack of major wealth and seeming reluctance to repay the whole million bucks played a role in upping Trump’s annoyance.)
The most important thing to remember about Trump – in this and every situation – is that he cares deeply about how things looks and how they’re playing. He watches lots of cable TV. And when someone other than him causes bad headlines for his administration, that person is in immediate jeopardy.
“Bad headlines,” one senior GOP congressional aide said, specifically citing the decision only to pay back money for his seat on the chartered aircraft, instead of the entire cost. “You’re never going to survive with this President if you’re clogging up cable with bad headlines.”
Ultimately those bad headlines – and bad lower thirds – were the kiss of death for Price. Bad decisions can be forgiven. Bad headlines can’t.