The White House is struggling to contain a potentially explosive ethics scandal, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s business conflicts, the Russia inquiry or the many lobbyists writing policy in his administration.
No, the real ethics nightmare that could finally rile Trump’s base voters involves the taxpayer money that super-rich cabinet officials have spent on private and military planes to questionable destinations. Unlike such obscure ethics questions as whether Trump violated the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the travel scandal is simple. When billionaire cabinet heads jet around on taxpayer-funded charter flights to ski resorts and sporting events, voters grasp instinctively that Beltway elites are following rules that don’t apply to average Americans.
That helps explain why Trump moved so decisively to punish Tom Price, who resigned as secretary of health and human services after it was disclosed that he had cost taxpayers $1 million in private and military flights to such destinations as Africa, Asia, and Europe. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney issued a memo reminding agency heads to follow executive branch travel guidelines, and announcing that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would clear all private and military flights from here on in.
But the travel-related disclosures and the ethics complaints keep piling up, including the news this week that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke attended a Montana ski getaway as one of several fundraising events that he has combined with official travel. The Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, has asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether Zinke’s attendance at a fundraiser on another taxpayer-funded trip, this one to the Virgin Islands, violated the Hatch Act, which bars executive branch employees from soliciting political contributions.
Zinke is one of several Trump cabinet officials whose costly travel habits are under investigation. The Interior Department Inspector General is looking into Zinke’s airplane trips, which include a $12,000 charter flight on an oil executive’s plane. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is under investigation by his department’s inspector general, who first took an interest when Mnuchin submitted a request (later withdrawn) that a military jet fly him to his honeymoon in Scotland. A millionaire financier, Mnuchin has reportedly racked up some $800,000 for air travel, including an Air Force flight to Fort Knox, where he watched the solar eclipse.
The Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General is looking into some $58,000 in noncommercial flights that EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt has taken to various U.S. destinations. House Democrats Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Grace Napolitano of California have also asked the EPA’s Inspector General to investigate Pruitt’s “potential waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars” after he hired a ’round-the-clock security detail for $832,735, and set out to build a soundproof phone booth in his office for $24,570.
Also facing scrutiny are Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who racked up $56,000 on private or government planes to destinations that could have been reached by commercial aircraft, and Vice President Mike Pence, who staged a walkout from an NFL football game in Indianapolis that cost an estimated $242,500 to reach by plane, and then proceeded to raise money off his posturing.
Cabinet officials say that their trips were cleared in advance and are well within the rules. The White House has also noted that Obama officials took military flights, too. But Trump officials appear to recognize the political damage inflicted by reports that wealthy administration officials are squandering public dollars even as their boss pledges to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
As Mulvaney took pains to remind administration officials in his memo last month, “just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.” David Apol, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, sounded a similar note in a sternly worded memo to agency heads on October 5. Apol wrote that he is “deeply concerned” that the actions of some have harmed perceptions about what’s permitted, and urged agency heads to model “a ‘Should I do it’ mentality (versus a ‘Can I do it?’ mentality).”
The administration’s problems may go well beyond optics, moreover, if it turns out that cabinet heads mixed official and political business in violation of the Hatch Act. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has asked Kelly, the White House chief of staff, for “a full, government-wide investigation” to determine whether cabinet-level private jet use has met White House guidelines that require such trips to serve the public interest. The violations that have come to light are not isolated instances, and reflect a broader pattern of ethics abuses that “starts at the top,” says CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder.
“When you have a president who has maintained his businesses despite massive and constant conflicts of interest, and has gone to his own properties at tremendous cost to the taxpayer,” says Bookbinder, “it sends a signal that using government to advance your own personal interests is fine in this administration, and even encouraged.”