Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has also made frequent use of military jets and private travel, including travel overseas and to and from his home state of Oklahoma, sticking taxpayers with thousands in bills over the cost of commercial travel. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the EPA is spending $25,000 to build a secure, soundproof phone booth for Pruitt, who has developed an extremely adversarial relationship with many employees at his agency, and who has enjoyed close ties with the industries he regulates.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has also used private jets for work trips, but DeVos, who is independently wealthy, has paid the tab.
Trump’s refusal to voice confidence in Price, and his implication that he is considering whether to fire Price, puts the secretary in a deeply uncomfortable and precarious position. It’s seldom clear how much Trump is speaking out of real conviction and how much he is speaking off the cuff. Already tainted by his earlier scandals, however, Price now faces a controversy that is perhaps more quotidian than many that the Trump administration has faced, but is easily understood by voters as an example of government officials living high on the hog on the taxpayer’s dime, in an administration that promised to end that sort of behavior.
Yet Sessions’s survival as attorney general offers Price at least some hope. Trump’s public attacks on Sessions went past anything seen in politics since President Andrew Johnson sought to fire Edwin Stanton in 1867. In tweets, the president criticized Sessions for a “VERY weak position” and demanded to know why he was not investigating Hillary Clinton. He told interviewers that he regretted appointing Sessions. Trump also dressed Sessions down privately after the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible involvement in a Russian scheme to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Sessions, however, has hung on, and continues to move on his major priorities for the Justice Department.
What the Price, Mnuchin, and Pruitt examples share is that in each case, the principals seem to be taking their cues from the president himself, who has made his name a byword for opulence, and for whom travel on a private jet was a linchpin of life even before he entered the White House. But Trump was paying for that travel himself as a candidate, and now that he’s president, Air Force One is a crucial part of presidential travel. The secretaries are acting as though they have the same rights and privileges of the president, which they do not.
Moreover, as I wrote earlier this week, they are part of a pattern of people around Trump acting as though they are as immune to the normal rules of politics as the president appears to be. What they keep discovering is that not only do the rules apply to them, but emulating Trump too closely might lead him to sack you.