The 3 Broken Rules of Flight Club: Why Trump’s Joy-Riding Champagne Cabinet Has to Leave
To paraphrase an old joke about lawyers, the answer to “What do you call the departure of HHS Secretary Tom Price?” is: “A good start.”
Since Politico broke the story of Secretary Price’s expenditure of $400,000 of taxpayer money on chartered airplane flights less than two weeks ago (now adjusted to as much as $1 million), revelations about the expense and frivolousness of private and government plane trips by President Donald Trump’s cabinet members have revealed a stunningly widespread practice of bypassing commercial airlines, often for trips with a personal, non-government component, among other Cabinet members as well.
The Washington Post reported that Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, costing taxpayers more than $58,000.
Last month, the EPA’s inspector general announced that it would launch a preliminary probe into Pruitt’s travels to Oklahoma. The internal watchdog said the inquiry was triggered by “congressional requests and a hotline complaint, all of which expressed concerns about Administrator Pruitt’s travel — primarily his frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense.”
Politico found that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s use of non-commercial planes included a flight to give a speech at a dinner for a hockey team owned by one of his top campaign contributors. It took him near his home, where he spent the night, and the plane he flew on is owned by executives of the oil industry that his agency’s rules and enforcement officials cover (or choose not to cover).
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides have taken several flights on private or military aircraft, including a $12,000 charter plane to take him to events in his hometown in Montana and private flights between two Caribbean islands, according to documents and a department spokeswoman.
And then there’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whose glamorous wife included the government plane in her cheerily hashtagged Instagram photo of their trip to Kentucky that included a special viewing of the solar eclipse from the roof of Fort Knox.
Investigations from internal agency inspectors general, journalists, and watchdog groups have extended to other Cabinet members as well, including Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin who traveled with his wife on a trip that included some official business but also a Wimbledon championship tennis match, a tour of Westminster Abbey, and a cruise on the Thames. The Washington Post reported that an agency spokesperson said that Shulkin’s wife was traveling on “approved invitational orders” and had “temporary duty” travel expenses.
This has become President Trump’s “ketchup as a vegetable” moment, or, perhaps his “let them eat cake” moment, clear, concrete, headline-friendly, late-night-tv-joke-friendly, even more political cartoon-friendly, schadenfreude-enjoyable, unignorable manifestation of arrogance, condescension, and cluelessness. So, now is a good reminder about the three rules of Flight Club, for all of those who accept the honor of public service.
1. Remember that you are under skeptical public scrutiny all the time. Welcome to democracy. Every action you take will be viewed through a telescope, a microscope, and a camera, often by people who do not agree with you and will take advantage of any opportunity to undermine you. As I used to tell political appointees when I was a government lawyer, “There are people who do not wish you well. Let’s not make it easy for them.”
John Legend tweeted that he more than once saw Obama HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius flying commercial. Joe Biden famously rode Amtrak between Washington and Delaware, daily when he served in the Senate and regularly when he was Vice President. This public display of humility and care for the expenditure of tax dollars communicates integrity. In contrast, defensive efforts to justify the private and military flights just make the Trump cabinet members look weak, ignorant, and out of touch.
2. The only acceptable response to criticism is “thank you. I will do better.” Interior’s Zinke dismissed questions raised about his flights as “a little BS” in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation. Secretary Price, under pressure, grudgingly offered to reimburse just one-eighth of what the flights costs. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claimed that his request (which was denied) to use a government plane for his honeymoon was entirely about “national security.” This is gasoline on the fire for those who criticize these officials as out of touch.
3. Flying commercial is not just for appearances — it actually helps you do a better job. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out nearly 200 years ago, most politicians in America, in any party, succeed by positioning themselves as outsiders, independent-minded reformers who will bring heartland values to Washington. But then they get lost in the echo chamber of their own base. How many of these trips took the Cabinet members to places where they met with people who oppose their views? Travel is one way to experience what everyday Americans experience and see how they respond. It is a way to meet them as well, though one Senator used to say the most important reason he always flew coach was that the people in First Class all felt entitled to speak to him and the people in coach left him alone to do his work.
President Trump has a real opportunity here to show America that he is the strong, decisive leader he promised to be, by using the phrase he considered so essential to his brand that he literally tried to trademark it. It’s time to use it for any appointee who has shown poor judgment, embarrassed his administration, and abused the public trust: You’re fired.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on September 30, 2017.