Trump Officials’ Luxe Travel Spending Makes Swamp-Draining Promises Look Like Hypocrisy

Trump Officials’ Luxe Travel Spending Makes Swamp-Draining Promises Look Like Hypocrisy

Top federal officials like Steve Mnuchin seem to think taxpayers owe them private charter flights at top expense.
Berny Belvedere

Have you given more to the economy than Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton? They pay more in taxes than you do, and sacrifice themselves for their country in ways you can’t even imagine. It’s a safe bet their taxes do more to help pay for government aircraft than yours do. If they want to use an Air Force jet to get around, they should be able to.

Reasonable, right? Linton certainly thought so!

The above excerpts a sensational Instagram reply in which the Treasury secretary’s wife unleashed a torrent of condescension toward a commenter for questioning whether taxpayers should foot the bill for jet-powered Mnuchin getaways.

When Linton’s comment began making waves, she turned her Instagram private, confirming that not even “#tomford sunnies” — which were tagged in the post — were enough to block all the haters. But these are the Mnuchins. The others aren’t like them.

The Rules Are Different for People Like Us

Mnuchin, after all, repurposed a California bank as a foreclosure machine at the height of the housing collapse. A top-earning Goldman Sachs executive, Mnuchin also dabbled in producing Hollywood titles.

Prior to his confirmation as Treasury secretary, at an event in which he was asked about his movies, Mnuchin had the legal awareness to deflect those questions with this answer: “Well, I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in. So I just want to have the legal disclosure that you’ve asked me the question and I am not promoting any product.”

The very next thing he uttered: “But you should send all your kids to ‘Lego Batman.’” So Mnuchin explicitly acknowledged he is not legally allowed to promote his movies. Naturally, with his very next breath he promoted his latest movie. This may not violate federal code, but it suggests a willingness to embrace the advantages that come with the job.

Mnuchin’s greatest moment so far might just be his formal request to use military aircraft for his honeymoon with Linton in Europe. The request triggered a review by the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General, since of course it is not immediately clear why the Treasury secretary would need that level of protection. Mnuchin said he needed to ensure access to a secure line of communication. He withdrew his request before it could be officially reviewed.

Should we take Mnuchin at his word that it was crucial for him to secure military transport? His pattern of behavior certainly leaves open the possibility he would say so simply to gain access to superior air travel. Some have suggested his earlier trip to Kentucky—the one referred to in the Instagram post, above—was manufactured to secure an optimal vantage point for that day’s much-anticipated solar eclipse. Mnuchin has obviously disputed this, but if it’s true, it’s a sickening display of government wastefulness.

The fact that Mnuchin has been cleared by the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General does not ipso facto mean he has used government funds wisely; it means he has not done so in a way that violates federal law. My critique is not fundamentally a legal one; it is a moral one. The government has an interest in seeing its own activities as legitimate and necessary—but it is far likelier these decisions represent the extravagant perks of holding political office.

Mnuchin Isn’t The Only Haute Public Servant, Either

But, again, this is only Mnuchin. You won’t find others in the administration contributing to government waste. Right?

From a report in The New York Times published a couple of weeks ago: “Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, used a chartered airplane for several flights, including a $12,000 trip to deliver a speech celebrating a new professional hockey team in Las Vegas. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent more than $58,000 on chartered and military flights, and David Shulkin, the veterans affairs secretary, took his wife on a 10-day trip to Europe that mixed business meetings and sightseeing, according to The Washington Post.”

The most egregious violator is Tom Price, Trump’s first secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who was let go after revelations came to light about his extravagant travel habits.

In a bombshell report by Politico, the first of many explosive revelations from Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan, Price was discovered to have spent $60,000 in a single week on flight costs alone. In a later report, Diamond and Prachana found Price had spent more than $1 million on private flights. Here’s a particularly juicy episode: “Price took a Gulfstream C-37B owned by the Department of Defense for a weeklong trip in late May through Africa and Europe. The six legs of travel, which represented about 30 hours of flight time, were projected to cost $311,418.25.”

The best part is that back in June Price expressed to the Senate Finance Committee the need for government to reform its spending habits. Price thought it was crucial that we ensure government programs “use tax dollars wisely.”

Let’s Just Fly Charter Like Everyone Else

But perhaps we’ve gotten Price all wrong. Perhaps we should interpret Price’s jetsetting as an inspired foray into a new bureaucratic technique: performative policy reform. Under this interpretation of his actions, Price intentionally becomes a wasteful spender to help us see just how wrong it is to misuse taxpayer money. He models what government officials should not be doing. He is our oracle, warning us about the perils of government waste as he embodies its tragic effects in his own person. If so, we should thank Price, not vilify him.

Witness his unshakeable sense of civic duty: “Price, his wife and eight HHS personnel took the Gulfstream from Berlin to Geneva on Sunday, May 21, an HHS official confirmed. The 95-minute trip was projected to cost taxpayers almost $16,000, according to an invoice. There are multiple commercial flight options on that route, such as several daily flights by EasyJet, for about $260 per ticket or less. The German airline Lufthansa is currently running a promotion for one-way flights between Berlin and Geneva for just $60.”

Let’s be serious, these decisions are summarily discrediting. By flying private rather than commercial, these officials convey a sense of unrepentant Washingtonian privilege. They must know that the winds of populism don’t blow for elites.

Percy Bysshe Shelley prophetically captured this type of mile-high elitism when he wrote: “And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile, Whilst he is dissolving in rains.”

This Is a Washington Swamp Problem

The scandal is obviously compounded by the fact that American taxpayer money is funding these trips. If administration officials must fly private, then it should be on their own dime, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos does. But they don’t really need to fly private. They do so because they feel entitled to it. As every parent knows, however, a sense of entitlement doesn’t always spring from a place of genuine need.

I’ve been criticizing the current administration, but this is a Washington problem, not a Trump administration problem. Based purely on coverage, one would think Trump officials have constructed a floating Elysium from which they never descend, whereas the Obama team was content to hitchhike around the country like some kind of technocratic Beat poet ensemble.

Yet the media dropped the ball by not also highlighting wastefulness during the Obama years. Eric Lipton of The New York Times acknowledged as much when he noted DC reporters’ comparative lack of interest in examining Obama-era travel costs.

A CNN report from earlier this month—notably not during Obama’s tenure, as current revelations about Trump administration officials are occurring—revealed “Forty-eight trips by [Ken] Salazar between 2010 and 2012 cost $586,196. Salazar was the Obama administration’s first interior secretary.” Is there anyone not on the federal payroll who could possibly believe that our interior secretary should spend more than a half-million dollars on fewer than 50 trips?

Lest anyone think only Salazar spent this much, Sally Jewell, Salazar’s successor, also spent nearly $400,000 on non-commercial flights. In total, the Obama administration spent nearly $1 million on noncommercial flights, not including military and Air Force One travel. That is less than some Trump folks have spent, but both administrations are guilty of allowing outrageous levels of spending on travel. It’s almost as if these people think we’re here to serve them. That is not how this is supposed to go.

As the investigations continue, every single government official who is found to have unnecessarily spent taxpayer money on travel should be compelled by law to pay us all back. They should also be dismissed for trying to get away with it in the first place. It is no longer possible to construe top Washington officials as “public servants.” This kind of behavior is ruinous for the prospects of a healthy political culture.

Hard to drain the swamp when the swamp is so used to draining us.

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, Florida. He is also editor-in-chief of Arc. Follow him on Twitter @bernybelvedere.

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