Secretary Price Resigns Following Criticism Of Costly Charter Flights

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on September 30, 2017 9:24 am
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has resigned from the Trump administration. His departure comes after much criticism over his use of charter and military flights instead of commercial flights. Price had offered to repay the government for his seats on those flights, but President Trump said he wasn't happy with Price. He didn't like how this looked. Dan Diamond of Politico has been reporting this story and he's with us now. Hey, Dan.

DAN DIAMOND: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So we've known about these flights for a little while now. And Price, as I said, said yesterday he'd reimburse the government for part of the cost. So what changed today?

DIAMOND: I think what changed is the drumbeat of coverage. There was a story after story after story that got to not just the charter flights around the United States, but most recently, on Thursday night, my colleague Rachana Pradhan and I wrote about the international travel, too, which is a little more nuanced. It's not necessarily as clear-cut unusual. But for a secretary to rack up more than a million dollars in travel spending over just four months and for that secretary to be someone who has criticized the federal government for waste, it's just created a maelstrom that made it very hard for Price to continue in this job according to Trump.

MCEVERS: A million dollars of flights. I mean, what exactly was he using these private and military planes for?

DIAMOND: Well, if you break it down into the two components, the charter jets around the United States were very unusual. Price would take trips to Philadelphia, to San Diego, to Nashville, to other places where there were clearly many commercial options for thousands of dollars less. And in some cases he was making these trips to places where he had personal connections. His son lives in Nashville. While Price was only on the ground for about 90 minutes of official work business, he did find time to have lunch with his son. And some of the other trips were not urgent Health priorities. He was making announcements, he was taking tours - things that could have been done at any time and frankly around his schedule. The military travel overseas is a little bit different. He was going to the World Health Assembly and other major conferences. But again the issue is there were commercial flights to these locations and previous secretaries have opted for lower-cost travel before.

MCEVERS: We've been hearing a lot about private and military plane travel with other members of this administration. How pervasive is this practice? And should we expect to see less of it now that, you know, it's forced Price to resign?

DIAMOND: There has already been a movement among the Cabinet secretaries not named Tom Price to be transparent around what they've used for charter jets if they've used them at all. On Friday afternoon, VA Secretary David Shulkin announced that he has taken no charter jets since January and even created a new website to track his travel to show the jets that he's taken and his itinerary. That's a big departure from Price, who, as reporters who've covered him know, would usually not tell reporters where he was going until after he had already been there if we found out at all. There clearly are some other issues with the Trump administration with Steven Mnuchin requesting a government plane, with Scott Pruitt flying back to Oklahoma frequently. So this isn't just contained to Price, but he seems to be on the outer edge when it comes to spending the most on his travel.

MCEVERS: And The Washington Post, of course, is just reporting that VA Secretary Shulkin was accompanied by his wife on a recent business trip to Europe that included leisure activity, so love to see where that goes. What about this kind of travel in previous administrations? I mean, how common is this?

DIAMOND: The military travel overseas is pretty common. And to - speaking to Shulkin going overseas to Europe and bringing his wife, it's not so unusual that a spouse might come with a secretary for an extended period of time, especially then if the secretary pays back for the spouse, as I believe was the case in Shulkin. But the trips around the country, these charter jets from common city to other big city with a lot of commercial flights, that's extremely unusual. And it comes at a time when Tom Price was pushing major budget cuts to HHS, supporting Republicans' plan to roll back the Affordable Care Act partly on grounds that it cost too much and even proposing a cut to his department's own travel budget that was less than the amount of travel he's spent over the past four months.

MCEVERS: And so quickly, where does this leave Health and Human Services and that Republican effort to gut Obamacare?

DIAMOND: It's going to tee up a brand new fight because Democrats have no interest in allowing a new HHS secretary to step in without significant pushback. They're concerned about sabotage of the ACA, and they have accused Tom Price of doing that. They want to make sure that the next secretary, whoever he or she is, is more committed to upholding, as they would say, the law of the land.

MCEVERS: Politico's Dan Diamond, thanks a lot.

DIAMOND: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.