Jen Psaki: Tom Price's resignation is not just about his use of taxpayer money to pay for chartered flights
It is about the growth of the swamp at the expense of the American people, writes Psaki
Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
While the failure of the Obamacare repeal, the mishandling of the hurricane in Puerto Rico and the dangerous threats made toward North Korea are making national headlines, there is another story that could be more damaging to Trump in 2020.
Behind the scenes, Donald Trump is not draining the swamp. He is the lead swamp monster. And he has created a cabinet that is ready and willing to take advantage of the taxpayer dollar.
Take his former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price as an example. His resignation is cause for celebration for members of both political parties, opponents and advocates for Obamacare. When given the opportunity to work with Democrats on fixing Obamacare, even with some openness expressed by President Trump, he did not pursue it. And twice he went along with Senate leadership as they tried and failed to repeal Obamacare.
For a former orthopedic surgeon and long serving members of Congress, his short record of service at the head of the health care agency will be marked by his complete inability to improve the quality or cost of healthcare for Americans.
But his reason for departing is not about his failure as a leader or a policy maker. It is about his shocking use of private jets on the taxpayer dime. He reportedly took multiple chartered flights for official business with a combined cost of over $1 million. Price has said he will reimburse the government for the cost of his seat on those flights, but that only amounts to $51,887.31.
No, this is not normal. I can only speak for Obama Administration officials in the exact same position. But Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary Sylvia Burwell only took commercial flights. Why? We worked for the American people and did not want to waste their money on unnecessary extravagances.
In response, Mike Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, issued new guidelines for cabinet travel. Moving forward, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly must pre-approve all “travel on government-owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft.”
But Price’s flights are just the tip of the iceberg. Price is not the only member of Trump’s cabinet who has used private charter flights paid for by the American taxpayer. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reportedly asked the White House about using a government jet for his honeymoon, which he claims was just one of many options “to ensure he had access to secure communications … as he traveled.” Meanwhile, Mnuchin’s flight to Fort Knox, where he, his wife Louise Linton and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell watched the solar eclipse, is currently under review by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General.
Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has used private planes for trips to his hometown and the Caribbean. He told CNN he only used private planes when several Interior professionals advised him no other options were available. But the Department of the Interior’s inspector general’s office has now opened a full investigation.
And Trump himself may have been padding his own pockets – or, to be more exact, the pockets of his family businesses – with American taxpayer money for months.
He kicked off his 2020 campaign with a re-election fundraiser hosted at none other than the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. While there have not been specific numbers released on how much the property made off of the event, the publicity was no doubt a benefit and the Trump team was projected to pocket $10 million in the process for the campaign fund.
Members of his White House staff have repeatedly used their platform to promote family businesses. The director of the Office of Government Ethics even called for White House Senior Advisor Kelllyanne Conway to be disciplined after encouraging viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” during an interview with Fox News earlier this year.
But the most egregious is Trump’s use of travel as a means of promoting his properties and providing a reason to make entry more exclusive and expensive. Mar-a-Lago, one of the most infamous of the Trump properties, has upped its member fee to $200,000 since the election. That is twice the previous fee. And the club’s profits in the first quarter have more than doubled from just over $15 million in 2014-2015 to more than $35 million from January 2016 to spring 2017.
He has also not drawn a line when it comes to profiting from foreign governments enjoying the glitz and glamour of his hotels. Saudi government lobbyists spent more than $200,000 at the Washington, DC property this year alone.
Before resigning in protest, the head of the Government Ethics office, Walter Schaub, stated, “I can’t know what their intention is. I know that the effect is that there is an appearance that the businesses are profiting from his occupying the presidency. And appearance matters as much as reality.”
This is all learning on the job, right?
Instead of apologizing and paying back taxpayer money, Zinke has called the accusations “a little BS.” Mnuchin, for his part, has refused to commit to taking only commercial flights during his time in office. Shorthand: Taxpayers, your money is my money, and I will use it as I see fit.
I am old enough to remember when then-candidate John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he owned and then-candidate Mitt Romney stated that “47% of the Americans pay no income tax.” These moments didn’t end their presidential campaigns, but they showed how these two nominees were completely disconnected from the struggles of working Americans. How could Mitt Romney or John McCain fight to make life better for Americans who needed help the most? They didn’t get it.
But as with almost any recent debate between prominent members of both parties, today we are in an entirely unprecedented situation.
The rampant abuse of taxpayer money, combined with the arrogant responses from Trump and his cabinet members, should send a chill down the spine of the Republican party. But it should especially unnerve those who elected him to drain the swamp.
After all, this isn’t just about Tom Price. This is about the growth of the swamp at the expense of the American people.