President Donald Trump said he would decide probably later on Friday whether to keep Tom Price in the job as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, expressing disappointment in Price’s use of expensive private charter flights for government business.
“I’m not happy. OK? I’m not happy,” Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn.
Trump, currently trying to sell his tax cut plan and oversee the federal response to devastation wreaked by three hurricanes, saw the Price drama as an unnecessary distraction and behind the scenes was telling aides “what was he thinking?,” a source close to the president told Reuters.
Price promised on Thursday to repay the nearly $52,000 cost of his seats on private charter flights. “The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes,” Price, a former congressman, said.
But whether that would be enough to satisfy Trump was far from clear.
Trump told reporters that the “optics” of Price’s travel were not good since, as president, he is spending a lot of time trying to renegotiate U.S. contracts to get a better deal for taxpayers.
He said Price had not offered to resign.
“Probably today something will happen,” Trump said. “Look, I think he’s a very fine person. I certainly don’t like the optics.”
Price was also seen in the White House as having been ineffective in getting Congress to pass healthcare reform legislation, an effort that has fizzled on Capitol Hill.
Price was one of a handful of senior officials in Trump’s administration put on the defensive over reports about their use of charter flights and government aircraft, sometimes for personal travel, when they could have flown commercial for less money.
The Washington Post on Friday reported that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin attended a Wimbledon tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and took a cruise on the Thames this summer during a 10-day trip to discuss veterans’ health issues in Britain and Denmark.
Shulkin, who traveled on a commercial airline, was accompanied on the trip by his wife, whose airfare was paid for by the government and who received a per diem for meals, the Post said, noting that the Department of Veterans Affairs said she was traveling on “approved invitational orders.”
His six-person traveling party included an acting undersecretary of health and her husband as well as two aides. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people, the Post said.
The trip came less than two weeks after Shulkin signed a memo instructing top VA staff to determine whether employee travel in their organization was essential, the Post said. His predecessor took no foreign work trips, the newspaper said, citing an anonymous former VA official.
Washington news media outlet Politico has reported that Price had taken at least two dozen private charter flights since May at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $400,000.
Politico in a report on Thursday night said the White House had approved the use of military aircraft for other trips by Price to Africa, Europe and Asia in the spring and summer that cost taxpayers more than $500,000.
Senior U.S. government officials travel frequently, but are generally expected to keep costs down by taking commercial flights or the train when possible.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have also been in the spotlight for their travel habits.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and James Oliphant; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)