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Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Thursday that he would reimburse the government for a portion of the costs of his flights on charter planes in recent months, after coming under sharp criticism from members of both parties for the expensive practice.
“Today, I will write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price said in a statement, adding that he would no longer take private planes while serving as secretary. “No exceptions.”
The move came as House and Senate investigators are pressing Price, as well as other Cabinet members, to disclose the extent to which they have relied on noncommercial travel to travel across the United States and overseas. The recent revelations about these costly trips on military and private aircraft, at a time when these same officials have proposed dramatic cuts in the agencies they oversee, has put the administration on the defensive.
Price has come under the most intense scrutiny — President Trump chastised him publicly Wednesday and suggested his job was no longer secure — but lawmakers are also demanding probes of travel by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, according to congressional oversight records, costing taxpayers more than $58,000, while Mnuchin is under investigation by the Treasury inspector general for his use of a government plane to visit Kentucky as well as one for a trip from New York City to Washington.
Last week, Price’s office explained that he had turned to chartered jets when needed for the most efficient and effective travel in managing HHS and maintaining contact with the public.
“This is Secretary Price, getting outside of D.C., making sure he is connected with the real American people,” said Charmaine Yoest, his assistant secretary for public affairs.
An HHS official said Thursday that Price would write a check for $51,887.31, which appears to cover the cost of his seat on chartered flights but not those of his staff. Politico, which first broke the story of Price’s repeated use of chartered jets, has estimated the total cost of these trips exceeded $400,000.
Although Price said his travels had been approved by legal and HHS officials, he regretted “the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.”
“All of my political career I’ve fought for the taxpayers,” Price said. “It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials.”
Price said he would continue to cooperate fully with the HHS inspector general’s office; the department watchdog is reviewing the flights. He also said he has initiated his own departmental review to determine if any changes or reforms are necessary.
On Wednesday, President Trump said he was “not happy” about the reports about the secretary’s travel and was noncommittal about whether he would ask him to resign. Responding to questions from reporters at the White House, Trump said he was “looking into” the situation and that “personally, I’m not happy about it, and I let him know it.”
It is unclear whether Price’s gesture to defray part of the flights’ cost would be enough to save his job; the White House did not immediately respond to questions about the secretary’s announcement.
At a briefing before Price’s announcement on Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president and his aides were waiting to see what happened with the HHS inspector general’s probe and other investigations also underway. House Democrats, who requested the inspector general’s review, have said Price’s flights appeared to violate federal law intended to ensure executive branch officials use the most economical travel available.
On Tuesday, the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee asked Price and more than 20 other agency heads to list all use of private, charter aircraft and government-owned aircraft by political employees since Trump’s inauguration. On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Trump to impose a government-wide ban on the use of charter flights by administration officials and to detail “what steps the administration has taken to ensure that cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold and the spirit and the letter of all laws, regulations, and policies that apply.”
Sanders told reporters, “We’re going through this process, we’re going to do a full review and we’ll see what happens,” adding that Trump is “not thrilled, certainly not happy with the actions. We’re definitely looking at the issue.”
“To be clear, the White House does not have a role on the front end of approving private charter flights at agencies,” Sanders said. “That’s something we’re certainly looking into from this point forward and have asked a halt to put particularly at HHS on any private charter flights.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.