Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has promised to reimburse the federal government for the costs of chartering expensive private jets, a face-saving move that is unlikely to satisfy President Trump's desire to make an example out of him, according to several people familiar with the situation.
In a statement late Thursday, Price said American taxpayers "won't pay a dime" for the five recent occasions on which he chose to travel via private jet for government-related business. The statement came nearly 10 days after his expensive method of travel was first reported.
An HHS spokeswoman later clarified that Price will only pay "his share of the travel," a sum close to $52,000. Oakley said the reimbursement was not to be taken as an admission of wrongdoing.
"What the secretary has done is say that while all of this travel was approved by legal and HHS officials, the secretary has heard taxpayers' concerns and wants to be responsive to them," the spokeswoman explained.
According to Politico, Price has flown nearly two dozen times on private aircraft since May for a grand total of more than $400,000. At least two other Cabinet-level officials – EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin – have been scrutinized for using private planes to conduct government business.
But the details surrounding Price's travel have been far more damning due to the frequency of the charter flights and the curious destinations, like St. Simons Island, a Georgia resort escape, and Nashville, where his son lives.
"To use a charter flight on something that combines personal and government business, I think it's highly unprofessional and really inappropriate," Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under former President George W. Bush, told Politico.
When Trump weighed in earlier this week, he told reporters he was "not happy" with his HHS secretary and planned to pay close attention to internal reviews of Price's travel.
"I was looking into it, and I will look into it. And I will tell you personally, I'm not happy about it," the president said before boarding departing the White House to deliver his tax reform pitch at an event in Indiana.
"I'm not happy about it and I let him know it," Trump added.
"He's pissed that he is getting bad press on this," a former White House official told the Washington Examiner, calling the situation a "distraction from tax reform."
Price and Trump never quite bonded the way the president has with other members of his Cabinet, particularly Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. One White House official, comparing the president to an impatient school teacher who picks class favorites and "barely tolerates" the other students, said Price would undoubtedly fit into the latter category.
"This is really ‘do as I say, not as I do' swampy," said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who pointed to Price's personal stock trading — something that raised conflict-of-interest questions before the former Georgia congressman was confirmed to lead HHS — as another source of "bad press" for the Trump administration.
Price had traded more than $300,000 in shares between 2012 and 2016 in health-related companies that could have potentially benefitted from legislation he was pushing for while serving in Congress.
To add to the president's frustration, Price was less involved than congressional GOP sources said he should have been when House Republicans were struggling to coalesce behind repeal-and-replace legislation earlier this spring to fulfill their promise to dismantle Obamacare. One senior Republican official said the HHS secretary briefed lawmakers several times but was not nearly as involved as Vice President Mike Pence or Trump.
Asked if Price has been involved in increasingly serious discussions about executive actions Trump could take on healthcare, which Sen. Rand Paul has been urging the president to do, Paul's office said the Kentucky Republican has "been working with the president, vice president and Labor Secretary [Alexander] Acosta."
A spokeswoman for Price declined to say whether the secretary has been involved in discussions surrounding a potential executive order on healthcare.
The former White House official said Trump's initial comment about Price — that he "will see" if the HHS secretary should be fired — is "probably not a good sign." However, the official noted that Trump spent weeks scolding Attorney General Jeff Sessions in comments to reporters and on social media after declining to accept his resignation and ultimately deciding not to fire him.
"He wants other [Cabinet officials] to know they cannot use private jets to do their jobs, and firing Price would send that message loud and clear. But whether the president chooses to do is something he might spend weeks thinking about" remains to bee seen, a source close to Trump told the Washington Examiner. "He's doing a stellar job focusing on tax reform right now and his team knows that any major shake-up would drown all of that out."
In the meantime, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced Thursday that the president has asked HHS to stop approving chartered flights pending completion of an internal agency and inspector general review.
"That's something that we're certainly looking into from this point forward and have asked a halt be put ... on any private charter flights moving forward," Sanders said. "As the president said yesterday, he's not thrilled — certainly not happy with the actions."