By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tom Price said on Thursday he retains President Donald Trump's confidence, despite Trump's remark that he was "not happy" with the expensive travel habits of his health department chief, a problem area for two other top administration officials as well.
Senior U.S. government officials travel frequently, but are generally expected to keep the costs down by taking commercial flights when possible.
Price, a former member of Congress who is now Trump's Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, has taken at least two dozen private charter flights since May at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $400,000, according to Washington news outlet Politico, which first reported the tab topped $300,000, then increased it after more reporting.
Trump on Wednesday said he was looking into the matter, adding that he was "not happy" about it. Asked by reporters if he would fire Price, Trump said, "We'll see."
Price, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were all on the defensive over reports about their flying habits, such as chartering private jets, or using U.S. government aircraft.
After an event in Washington promoting the use of flu shots, Price spoke to reporters about the travel flap. He said, "I think we've still got the confidence of the president ... We're going to work through this."
Price's travels and those of the entire Trump cabinet are being probed by a U.S. House of Representatives committee. The panel's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings, has been asking why officials cannot take commercial airplanes or trains to keep costs down.
Senate Democrats on Thursday also wrote to Price demanding information about his flights.
The inspectors general at HHS as well as the EPA and Treasury Department are investigating to see if government travel rules were followed.
Critics asked why the officials who have sought budget cuts for their own departments are paying more than may be necessary for official transportation.
"If Donald Trump won't take control of his administration and fire Scott Pruitt for his egregious abuse of office then Congress must hold immediate hearings investigating Pruitt living the high life on the taxpayer’s dime," said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club.
The EPA's inspector general announced last month it was investigating Pruitt's frequent travels to his home state of Oklahoma, fuelling speculation he intended to run for the U.S. Senate there.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday new questions about Pruitt's use of planes, saying he had taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, costing taxpayers more than $58,000.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Pruitt did use one charter flight, but said other commissioned flights were done on government planes through an Interior department program.
"The administrator flies commercial, unless there is a necessity to do otherwise, and with approvals from EPA’s ethics office," said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.
The charter in question was to visit an abandoned mine leak near Durango, Colorado. The administrator had problems with a connecting flight out of Denver, a government official said.
Although Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper offered Pruitt a seat on his plane with state officials, Pruitt's team secured a charter before the offer was made to accommodate him and his private security detail, said the official, asking not to be named.
At the Treasury department, the inspector general is reviewing Mnuchin's use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky in August for a visit to Louisville and Fort Knox. Mnuchin and his wife viewed the solar eclipse during the trip.
Mnuchin was asked Thursday on the "CBS This Morning" program if he would promise to ride commercial airlines for the rest of his tenure as Treasury secretary.
"I can promise the American taxpayer the only time that I will be using (military) air is when there are issues either for national security or where we have to get to various different things (and) there's no other means," Mnuchin said.
Price told Fox News over the weekend he had stopped using private planes for taxpayer-funded trips while the matter is being reviewed.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jeffrey Benkoe)