Administrations come and go, but wasting taxpayer money on costly government travel remains a constant in Washington.
Much like the Obama administration, President Trump’s Cabinet now finds itself embroiled in a widening scandal over the high cost of travel by several secretaries, with five investigations underway. After Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over the cost of his taxpayer-funded private flights, others now under fire are Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
And Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for spending about $250,000 to fly on Air Force Two from Nevada to Indiana to attend an NFL game (which he quickly left in protest of a players’ protest of the national anthem), and returning to California the same day for political fundraising.
President Trump came to Mr. Pence’s defense Monday, tweeting that the vice president’s trip “was long planned” and that he received “great praise” for leaving the game after players showed “disrespect for the country.”
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington filed Freedom of Information Act requests Monday for records relating to Mr. Pence’s trip to the NFL game, as well as all noncommercial travel by Mr. Perry, who has taken at least four noncommercial flights since March, including a flight estimated at $11,000 to visit a coal mine.
The spreading scandal has become such a distraction that administration officials are receiving a crash course on the importance of appearances when spending taxpayer dollars on travel. And Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has issued a memo reminding agency chiefs that “we are public servants.”
“Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right,” Mr. Mulvaney said.
The cost-conscious budget director issued the warning at the request of the president. But Mr. Trump is hardly setting the tone for travel frugality, flying from Washington most weekends to his golf resorts in New Jersey or in Florida.
Since his inauguration, Mr. Trump has spent 16 weekends at the White House, 10 weekends at his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, and seven at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Aides say the president is always working on those trips. But leaving Washington on Air Force One incurs millions of dollars in cumulative travel costs that wouldn’t be spent if he were staying at the White House.
Over the Columbus Day weekend, Mr. Trump stayed in Washington — sort of. The man who often criticized Mr. Obama for playing golf spent all three days motorcading to and from his golf club in Sterling, Virginia.
A president’s golfing is guaranteed to set off his critics. Mr. Obama played 333 rounds of golf in eight years as president, according to CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, who tracked the games.
Mr. Trump’s staff often refuses to say whether he is golfing at his golf courses. Monday was an exception, with aides confirming that the president golfed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
The image of a president golfing can become so politically charged that President George W. Bush swore off the sport during his presidency, convinced that any photographs of him playing during wartime would send a bad message.
On the defensive over travel costs, the White House said last weekend that Trump officials have taken 77 military flights through Sept. 19, compared with 94 flights taken during the first eight months of the Obama administration.
“If you look at the Obama administration, and you take a look at the amount of time that they spent in the air, they spent a lot of time in the air,” Mr. Trump said just before Mr. Price’s resignation.
True, there are plenty of examples of Obama officials spending taxpayers’ money liberally on travel. Exhibit A was Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and defense secretary during the Obama years and regularly flew on a government airplane to commute back and forth from Washington to California nearly every weekend at taxpayer expense.
As The Washington Times reported at the time, each flight home and back cost the Pentagon an estimated $32,000, and Mr. Panetta was required to pay only $630 per trip — the cost of an equivalent round-trip commercial flight. The taxpayer tab for his time as defense secretary alone was believed to top $3 million, only a small fraction of which Mr. Panetta had to repay.
For security reasons the government requires the defense secretary to use the military equivalent of a Gulfstream jet for all travel. Mr. Panetta had worked out a deal with then-President Obama to allow the trips back to California. And why not? It wasn’t costing Mr. Obama anything.
“The White House understood when Mr. Panetta took the job that he would return to Monterey to visit his family, as he did when he was director of the CIA,” a senior administration official said at the time. “That’s where his family lives, after all.”
In 2014 Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. used a government-owned Gulfstream to fly to the Belmont Stakes horse race in New York with his daughters, their boyfriends and two security officers.
Justice Department records obtained by The Daily Caller show that the trip cost the government $14,440. But Mr. Holder had to repay the government only $955 for the trip — the equivalent of a coach commercial plane ticket for each non-law enforcement passenger.
For Mr. Trump, however, comparing examples of past wastefulness and arrogance with taxpayers’ money doesn’t make a compelling defense for a president who has promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Democrats on the House Transportation Committee last week asked the EPA inspector general for a probe of spending by Administrator Scott Pruitt, including $832,735 for what they called an “unprecedented” round-the-clock security detail. Reps. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and Grace F. Napolitano of California said the expenses are “symptomatic of a troubling culture that appears to have swept through this administration.”
“This culture, which is reflected in travel and lifestyle choices from the president on down, seems to embolden senior, politically appointed officials of the Trump administration to undertake lavish spending of taxpayer dollars for their sole and personal benefit, and not for the benefit of the Americans paying the tab,” they wrote.
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