WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was “not happy” with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price over reports he used expensive private charter jets to travel for government business rather than cheaper commercial flights.
Asked if he would fire Price, Trump told reporters: “We’ll see.”
The House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee opened an investigation on Wednesday into travel by top officials. The panel wrote to the White House and 24 federal agencies requesting information about senior officials’ aircraft use.
Asked if he had confidence in Price after the reports on his travel, Trump said: “I am looking at that very closely. I am not happy with it. I will tell you I am not happy with it.”
Trump has emphasized his efforts to save the U.S. government money, for example by pressing for better prices for military aircraft. While hosting the reality television program “The Apprentice,” his signature phrase was: “You’re fired!”
Price has taken at least two dozen private charter flights since May at a cost to taxpayers of about $300,000, according to Politico, which first reported the travel.
HHS said Price had “heard the criticism and concerns” over his travel. “He takes that very seriously and has taken it to heart,” said HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley.
“The Secretary has initiated an internal departmental review of the procedures and processes that we go through for official travel to determine whether there are any changes or reforms that are necessary,” she said.
On Friday, the HHS inspector general said it was reviewing Price’s travel on chartered aircraft. “The review focuses on whether the travel complied with Federal Travel Regulations, but may encompass other issues related to the travel,” said Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman.
As a Republican U.S. representative in 2009, Price chastised “the fiscal irresponsibility” of private-plane use by government officials in an appearance on CNBC television that he also posted on Twitter.
Two other senior officials are facing scrutiny over their travels. The Treasury Department’s Inspector General is reviewing the circumstances of Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky in August for a visit to Louisville and Fort Knox. Mnuchin and his wife viewed the solar eclipse during the trip.
The frequent travels of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, to Oklahoma are being investigated by that agency’s inspector general [L2N1LE1B3].
The House committee’s announcement followed calls for a probe by its top Democrat, Representative Elijah Cummings.
“We just want to see whether or not there’s abuse there. We know of three (departments) already, EPA, Treasury and of course Health,” Cummings said outside the House on Wednesday.
Cummings wrote to Price last week: “The amount of taxpayer funds you reportedly spent on just one single flight earlier this month is more than some of my constituents make in an entire year.”
Five Democratic House members wrote to Price on Wednesday urging him to resign “in light of your breach of the public trust.” They were Representatives Ruben Gallego, Ted Lieu, Brenda Lawrence, Jamie Raskin and Pramila Jayapal.
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb, Susan Heavey and Eric Walsh; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Peter Cooney