ASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Wednesday he’s “not happy” with his top health official, after Tom Price’s government-paid travel on costly charter flights triggered a wide-ranging congressional investigation of the administration.
Trump’s displeasure, voiced repeatedly, called into question Price’s job security as head of the Health and Human Services Department. Price, a former GOP congressman from Georgia, also played a supporting role in the futile Republican effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health care law.
Asked whether he’s planning on firing Price, Trump responded: “We’ll see.”
The president spoke to reporters as he left the White House for a trip to sell his tax overhaul in Indianapolis. Trump said he’d let Price know of his disappointment. However, the president’s comments seemed to take the health secretary’s office by surprise. There was no immediate response from HHS.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent detailed travel records requests to the White House and 24 departments and agencies, dating back to Trump’s first day in office.
The letters were signed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and its ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Lawmakers are demanding information on political appointees’ use of government planes for personal travel, as well as their use of private charters for official travel. The committee wants details by Oct. 10.
Price’s travels were first reported by Politico, which said it has identified 26 charter flights at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, in many cases where cheaper commercial flights were a viable option. On a June trip to Nashville, Price also had lunch with his son, who lives in that city, according to Politico.
The HHS inspector general’s office began a review last week to determine if Price complied with federal travel regulations, which generally require officials to minimize costs.
Price’s office said the secretary’s demanding schedule sometimes does not permit the use of commercial airline flights. Officials said Price is cooperating fully with the inspector general’s probe and will stop using charter flights until that investigation is complete.
Trump’s publicly expressed displeasure — or ambivalence — has been a sign in the past that the tenure of a key aide will soon be over.
Back in August, the president was asked if he still had confidence in Steve Bannon, then a senior strategist. “He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon,” Trump said. Bannon was out three days later.
On Wednesday, reporters asked Trump about Price’s travels.
“I was looking into it, and I will look into it, and I will tell you personally I’m not happy about it,” Trump responded. “I am not happy about it. I’m going to look at it. I’m not happy about it and I let him know it.”
Price, an ally of House Speaker Paul Ryan, is a past chairman of the House Budget Committee, where he was known as a frequent critic of wasteful spending. As HHS secretary, he has questioned whether the Medicaid health insurance program for low-income people delivers results that are worth the billions of dollars taxpayers spend for the coverage.
Other members of the Cabinet contacted by The Associated Press last week said they personally foot the bill for chartered travel or reimburse taxpayers the difference between commercial and chartered travel. The exceptions are when they are traveling with the president or vice president, who fly aboard government planes.
— Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar