Trump’s crooked Cabinet: Liars, thieves, & scoundrels edition (UPDATE)
Barely a day goes by without a new story about mind-blowing, expensive malfeasance by another member of Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
Not that we had hope for any of them at the beginning of Trump’s term. Senate Democrats were correct to vote against most of the Cabinet nominees, even if it didn’t do any good in the long run — they were all confirmed, even if it took a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence in the case of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she of the “I don’t visit underperforming schools” school, as she revealed in her disastrous 60 Minutes interview.
The Cabinet secretaries are lavishly overspending, flying high on the public’s dime, mixing politics with their official duties, and basically showing the rest of the world that they’re ignorant of exactly what their department is supposed to do.
Although there’s a long list of Trump staff appointees who have left or been shoved out the door of the White House itself, only two Cabinet secretaries have had to hit the road — so far.
- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by tweet (or told he was getting the ax while he was sitting on the toilet — really, either scenario is despicable). The official reason given was muddy, but the rest of the world knows that it was because Tillerson dared to criticize Russia for its likely role in using a nerve agent to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom.
- The publicity was so bad about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s high-flying ways that he was forced to resign. A Politico investigation discovered that he had spent taxpayer money on military and private chartered jets to the tune of $1 million, when his predecessors had flown commercial.
Maybe Trump and co. just figure that the public has grown numb to such wretched excess—after all, the Secret Service already has spent $150,000 on golf cart rental alone for Trump’s numerous outings on the links, so what’s a few private jets? Some in the Cabinet are ringing up bills that are approaching or are as big as the Price-isn’t-right level. But no one — certainly not Trump himself — is calling for any other Cabinet secretary’s ouster because of outlandish travel costs (at least, that we’ve heard about; who knows what someone might have said to raise Trumpian ire?). Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways that some others in the Cabinet have been living large. Hearing about them one at a time is bad enough. Grouping them into a crooked Cabinet roundup tells the whole sordid — and expensive — story.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Tom Price was forced to resign, but that was so 2017—acceptable outlandish flight prices obviously have gone up. Now, Mnuchin’s the one who has spent nearly $1 million on private and military flights. Taking commercial flights, as his predecessors did, is obviously for the little people, as Mnuchin and his actress wife, Louise Linton, showed us when they took a military flight to Tennessee to see last summer’s eclipse, even though the official reason was to “check out the gold” at Fort Knox. Mnuchin always used the excuse that he needed to take military flights because of the necessity for “secure communications” when he was on board. Believe it or not, a Treasury Department investigation cleared Mnuchin.
EPA Director Scott Pruitt. Speaking of secure communications, let’s not forget about the soundproof booth that Pruitt claimed was essential for his office. It was bad enough at the original reported price of $25,000. But the total costs were actually more like $43,000, once you add in the prep work renovations of pouring two feet of concrete, installing a drop ceiling, painting, etc. And that’s not Pruitt’s only transgression. He, too, seems to be addicted to expensive travel: His trips on chartered, military, business-class, and first-class flights totaled $163,000—paltry by Mnuchin standards, but still a good chunk of change. Several evolving excuses were offered: He received a blanket waiver to always fly first class (he didn’t); he had to sit near the front of the plane for security reasons (how is it secure when everyone in coach has to file by your seat?); he faced “unprecedented threats” from the general public (I assume that’s when a fellow traveler yelled something like, “WHY ARE YOU POISONING THE PLANET?”). One trip to Italy alone, with a private tour of the Vatican, cost $120,000. And all of this doesn’t include Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail, at a reported $3 million annual cost, which is needed because—well, let’s be honest, it’s not needed.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. The $31,000 price tag of the now-infamous dining room set is chump change compared with what’s spent on other Cabinet secretaries’ flights. But it was the laughingly stupid excuses that really exposed Carson’s idiocy. First he blamed the furniture order on his staff, saying he knew nothing about it. Then, when emails surfaced that he did know about it, he tried to claim that the old furniture was dangerous because people were being “struck by nails” from the existing table and chairs. Finally, he told a House Appropriations subcommittee that #Tablegate was all his wife’s fault, that she chose the furniture, and that he knew nothing about it. Underside of bus, meet Candy Carson. At least that’s a better excuse than the one offered by New York Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, who blamed the botched purchase order on the “deep state.” Oh, and did we mention how inappropriate it was for Carson to enlist his own son, Ben Jr., to arrange an official HUD speaking tour? Especially because the honored guests who would hear Dr. Carson’s message were all doing business with the younger Carson and his wife? But when the boss’s White House is a cesspool of nepotism, why should HUD be any different?
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. There have been multiple reports about Zinke’s high-flying habits: A half-dozen taxpayer-funded flights on private jets; flights on a chartered jet owned by an oil executive; official trips that were mostly to meet with big GOP political donors or for campaign events, with a scant amount of official business thrown in; and a special helicopter ride so he could ride horses with Mike Pence. Zinke was miffed that senators dared to ask him questions at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. He whined about “misleading questions” and “innuendoes” regarding his travel and the new $139,000 doors in his office. Hey, it’s good to know that those jacked-up fees at national parks are paying for something, right? At least the public knows when he’s in Washington, courtesy of the special “secretarial flag” he orders his staff to run up the flagpole when he’s in the building.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. The VA secretary’s big trouble came over a 10-day trip to Europe with only three days of meetings with European officials. The trouble came when the $122,000 trip also included free tickets to Wimbledon. And a boat cruise on the Thames. And a tour of a Danish castle. And shopping in Sweden. And all travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari. Shulkin has since reimbursed the costs of his wife’s travel, especially after a report found that Shulkin’s chief of staff had doctored emails to justify paying for Bari’s expenses. The European trip, by the way, came less than two weeks after Shulkin signed a memo instructing top VA staff to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.” Now there are reports that Shulkin might be the next secretary to go.
Other Cabinet secretaries also have jumped on the expensive travel train, although to a lesser extent. Energy Secretary Rick Perry insists that the $56,000 he has spent on chartered jet travel is “essential” for him to do his job. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used government jets seven times, but the Transportation Department’s ethics counsel approved all of those uses.
To be fair, some Cabinet members fly commercial when they travel or repay the difference between private and commercial flights themselves, like Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has used military aircraft only to fly to disaster sites. And Education Secretary DeVos and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, both extremely wealthy, fly on their own private jets when not on commercial flights; DeVos uses her own jets exclusively.
All of this pricey travel has spurred two senators, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, to ask the White House Office of Management and Budget to provide more detail about White House policies on travel spending. Somehow, I doubt they’ll get much satisfaction.
Of course, it’s not the egregious behavior — it’s the optics. The White House reportedly called several Cabinet members on the carpet because of their high expenses. But it wasn’t because of the high expenses at all — it was because the details of those expenses were all over CNN.
In the end, these Cabinet secretaries are sometimes chastised but are mostly cleared through internal investigations of their free-spending ways. There are always rumors that Trump is considering dumping some Cabinet members and replacing them with others in a game of White House Cabinet Room musical chairs. But it probably won’t matter as long as they do the jobs Trump considers most important: Sing Trump’s praises and never disagree with him.
And never, ever, say anything negative about Vladimir Putin.
UPDATE: Just as reported, Shulkin is now history. The new nominee, Ronny Jackson, is the doctor who reported that the 71-year-old Trump magically grew an inch taller than what is reported on his driver’s license and weighs in at just 239 pounds, conveniently one pound shy of obesity. If you want to be a Cabinet secretary, it’s all about the flattery.
And there are new reports of wrongdoings by Pruitt. Instead of livin’ large, he stayed at a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy industry lobbyist for the bargain price of $50/night in Washington’s expensive rental market. Sure enough, that lobbyist’s company’s pipeline extension project won approval from the EPA.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on March 25, 2018.