File this story under, "if it were the Obama administration, conservatives would be screaming." And you know it's true. The Right teed off security and accommodation costs associated with Obama family vacations to Hawaii and elsewhere, only to look the other way as President Trump racks up a gargantuan tab of his own. As a thought experiment, try to imagine the headlines we'd be writing if Kathleen Sibelius were breaking precedent charging taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a pop for private jet flights to various corners of the country while promoting Obamacare. If you'd have objected then, you should object to this, too. Some of these details reported by Politico are brutal:
In a sharp departure from his predecessors, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last week took private jets on five separate flights for official business, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars more than commercial travel. The secretary’s five flights, which were scheduled between Sept. 13 and Sept. 15, took him to a resort in Maine where he participated in a Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO, and to community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to internal HHS documents. The travel by corporate-style jet comes at a time when other members of the Trump administration are under fire for travel expenditures, and breaks with the practices of Obama-era secretaries Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Kathleen Sebelius, who flew commercially while in the continental United States. Price, a frequent critic of federal spending who has been developing a plan for departmentwide cost savings, declined to comment. HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson saying only that Price sometimes charters planes when commercial flights aren’t feasible.
First of all, Price did campaign and govern as a fiscal hawk, even tweeting negatively about government use of private jets in 2009. Secondly, does the spokesperson's spin about infeasible commercial travel hold up under even cursory scrutiny? Nope:
On one leg of the trip — a sprint from Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles — there was a commercial flight that departed at roughly the same time: Price’s charter left Dulles at 8:27 a.m., and a United Airlines flight departed for Philadelphia at 8:22 a.m., according to airport records. Sample round-trip fares for the United flight ranged from $447 to $725 per person on United.com, though the price would have been lower if booked in advance or if Price’s party received government discounts. Similarly priced commercial flights also left from Reagan National Airport and Baltimore Washington International. By contrast, the cost of chartering the plane was roughly $25,000, according to Ultimate Jet Charters, which owns the Embraer 135LR twin jet that ferried Price and about 10 other people to the clinic event. In addition, Amtrak ran four trains starting at 7 a.m. that left Washington’s Union Station and arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station no later than 9:58 a.m. The least-expensive ticket, on the 7:25 a.m. train, costs $72 when booked in advance.
He chartered a flight to Philadelphia from Dulles, which is a 30-45 minute drive from Washington, DC? For twenty-five grand? Dude. These are -- what's the phrase? -- oh yes, atrocious optics, particularly on the heels of this head-scratcher from Steven Mnuchin:
DC to Philadelphia*:— Tim Hanrahan (@TimJHanrahan) September 20, 2017
Car: $50 gas/tolls
Acela train: $240
United plane: $450
Private jet: See below
*Approximate, round trips https://t.co/V5FqL7pKm0
I've seen two defenses of Price's profligate travel habits floating around: First, "time is money." That's an aphorism often applied to executives, and Price does run a large and important government agency. But it's our money, not his. And the idea that he "needed" to be shuttled to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in private jets doesn't wash. See the timely transportation alternatives listed above. If commercial travel was good enough for Sebelius, it sure as hell better be good enough for the conservative administration that succeeded hers. And then there's this excuse:
Given the left’s violence and harassment, I do not blame a single Trump cabinet secretary for flying by private jet. https://t.co/kXdjQkrrjA— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) September 20, 2017
Really? Price travels with a protective detail. Making sure he gets from point A to point B safely is their whole job, for which we pay them. Yes, some Trump cabinet secretaries have been harassed in public, but I haven't read a single report of violence, or attempted violence. The notion that Price, or anyone else, couldn't survive a flight (especially a very short one) among the masses is preposterous. And if Team Price were truly worried about security, they could have easily driven to Philly in government SUVs. If we wouldn't have tried to justify conduct from a Democratic administration, we shouldn't try to do so for a Republican one, even if it involves someone we like and admire. It's also galling that Price would open himself up to turnkey populist attacks smack dab in the middle of a big healthcare fight. The Left's messaging couldn't be any simpler: While Tom Price tries to rip healthcare away from millions (fact check: false), he's charging us an arm and a leg for his unnecessary private jet adventures. This was an indefensible own goal.
UPDATE - This pile-on doesn't work because DeVos pays for this travel herself, which didn't make it into the headline:
"Education Department Press Secretary Liz Hill told the Associated Press on Thursday that DeVos travels completely on her own dime, accepting no government reimbursement for flights or other expenses. 'Secretary DeVos accepted her position to serve the public and is fully committed to being a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars,' Hill said." Big, big difference.