In 1991, George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, was forced to resign in the wake of a specific kind of scandal: on multiple occasions, Sununu used government resources for his personal travel. The then-president first rebuked his top aide before eventually accepting his resignation.
When the story about HHS Secretary Tom Price’s private-jet travel first broke, it appeared that this was a different kind of controversy because the Republican cabinet secretary’s trips were strictly professional in nature. Politico moved the ball forward yesterday with a report that suggests Price actually mixed personal and professional interests while taking advantage of taxpayer-funded travel.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference that he and his wife have long attended.
The St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and paired official visits with meetings with longtime colleagues and family members. On June 6, HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary and spoke to a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.
To appreciate all of the details, many of which are quite damaging, it’s worth reading the full piece.
Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyers in the Bush/Cheney administration, described Price’s travel practices as “highly unprofessional and really inappropriate.”
So, where does that leave us? We now know that Price chartered dozens of private flights. We know that the costs to taxpayers now exceed $400,000. We know that the cabinet secretary has come up with several excuses, none of which makes a lot of sense.
And we know that, according to Donald Trump, the White House is aware of the controversy and officials are “looking into it.” That presumably includes a review from the HHS inspector general’s office, which has already begun its investigation.
What we don’t know is what kind of rules Trump World intends to live by. Before Tom Price even joined the president’s cabinet, he was already burdened by a scandal that suggested he may have used his congressional office for personal gain. Now the Georgia Republican is facing a new controversy featuring similar allegations.
Under normal political conditions, Price would be under intense pressure to resign, and his career would effectively be over. This is, in other words, a test of Trump World’s ethical standards – and if the president and his team intend to wait for Price’s mess to blow over, they’ll fail.