WHITE HOUSE —
A member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet was out of a job Friday afternoon for chartering expensive planes at government expense, rather than taking cheaper commercial flights.
"Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas Price offered his resignation earlier today and the president accepted," a White House statement said.
Price's resignation was effective at midnight, and Don J. Wright, deputy assistant secretary for health and director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, will take over as acting secretary.
About an hour before the resignation announcement, Trump told reporters he was not happy with Price as "I certainly didn't like the optics" of the flap over travel.
The president explained why: "We save hundreds of millions of dollars through negotiation. I'll give you an example: With the F-35 fighter plane — me, myself — I've saved hundreds of millions of dollars in negotiating. And that's one of the reasons I don't like seeing anybody even have a question about, you know, flying."
The president, telegraphing what was about to happen, added, "I felt very badly because Secretary Price is a good man."
The president said members of his Cabinet could only take such expensive private flights if they were paying their own way.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for example, is a billionaire; she uses her own plane for work trips and pays for the cost of the flights herself, according to her office.
According to the news website Politico, the cost of private flights Price took while Cabinet secretary climbed to an estimated $1 million.
On Thursday, Price, a former member of Congress who often attacked government waste, expressed regret for the flights and vowed to repay the government for the cost of his seat but not the full cost of chartering the planes.
The Health and Human Services Department told media outlets that the amount he was expected to repay totaled $51,887.31, far less than the total estimated cost of the more than two dozen flights on private and military jets.
"Tom Price committed the one unpardonable sin in Trump's world: Being rich, but not rich enough to own his own private jet," Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff tweeted.
Call for oversight
A Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, David Cicilline, said, "President Trump promised to drain the swamp. But today, yet another of his top officials has resigned in disgrace."
The congressman, who is the co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, is calling on fellow lawmakers in his party "to conduct real oversight that prevents this type of abuse. Looking the other way cannot be tolerated a single moment longer."
In addition to Price, administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are also under scrutiny for the cost of their government travel.
An internal investigation at Treasury is reportedly under way into the travel approval procedures for Mnuchin's chartering of planes, including military aircraft for an overseas trip.
Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dismissed criticism on Friday about his use of private aircraft.
Zinke acknowledged taking three charter plane trips, including a $12,000 flight from an event with a big donor.
"All this travel was done only after department officials determined no other flights were available," Zinke told the audience at the Heritage Foundation. "Every time I travel, I submit travel plans to the department, who determines line by line that I follow the law. And I follow the law."
Friday night the White House announced it is giving chief of staff John Kelly authority to sign off on government travel on government-owned, rented, leased or chartered aircraft.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has issued the new guidance, reminding the heads of executive branch departments and agencies that they are public servants and that every penny they spend comes from taxpayers.
VOA's Marissa Melton contributed to this report.