Price’s departure caps a stormy and unusually short tenure. A physician from Georgia who previously served in Congress, Price was subject to withering attacks during his confirmation hearings from Democrats, who said that his trading of health-care stocks that were affected by his work in Congress was dubious at best and insider trading at worst. Once confirmed in February, he found himself in the midst of the frantic, shambling effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. At a Boy Scout rally in West Virginia in July, Trump joked that he’d fire Price if Obamacare repeal failed.
After several attempts, the law remains in place, but it was the taxpayer-funded travel that doomed Price. He said the costly flights he took were made in an official capacity, but various reports suggest that he was at the very least mixing his personal and professional travel—for example by taking a private jet to a Georgia resort where he owns land, and then speaking to a conference the following day.
On Thursday, Price moved to soothe the roiling crisis by saying he would pay for the price of his seat on the planes. At first glance, that seemed like a major move to dampen the furor, but it quickly became clear that there was less to the announcement than it appeared. Price was paying only for his own seat—a not inconsiderable $52,000 or so, but well short of the more than $400,000 the flights had cost. His tab didn’t reckon with the cost of aides’ flights, nor the fact that the planes wouldn’t have taken off without him. Price argued that Trump’s ambitious agenda required the flights—a somewhat ironic claim, given the failure of Obamacare repeal, the administration’s signature health initiative.
Later, Politico, which broke the initial story and has delivered a series of damaging scoops about Price, delivered another big headline: The White House had approved Price’s use of military aircraft for trips to Asia and Europe over the summer. His wife Betty had flown with him, while other staffers flew commercial. That brought the total tab for Price’s travel to more than $1 million, at least of what is publicly known. Former President Barack Obama’s health secretaries both flew commercial while on the job. BuzzFeed also reported that Price had sought to reopen an executive dining room at the department that had been shuttered, which would have cost extra money.
Although the White House had signed off on those trips, Trump was angry. On Wednesday, he declined to express confidence in Price, and The New York Times reported Thursday that Trump had grown even more angry since then, because he views the use of private planes “as undercutting his drain-the-swamp campaign message.”
The president was on to something. For a group of secretaries who espouse conservative principles and complain that government is too large and spends too much, Trump’s Cabinet has proven remarkably effective at spending taxpayer money. The failure of Obamacare repeal may have weakened Price heading into this scandal, but pushing him out may set a dangerous precedent for other members of the Cabinet.