Public Servants And Their Private Jets
Above the clouds. High above us all.
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 they 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.
Louise Linton certainly thought so!
The above is my paraphrase of 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.
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.
Do you want to know the very next thing he uttered? “But you should send all your kids to LEGO Batman.”
What just happened here? Literally seconds prior Mnuchin had cited the federal code that says:
An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.
So Mnuchin explicitly acknowledged he is not legally allowed to promote his movies. Naturally, with his very next breath he promoted his latest movie.
But Mnuchin’s greatest moment 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 that he have access to a secure line of communication. He withdrew his request before it could be officially reviewed.
But, again, this is the Mnuchin way. You won’t find others in the administration contributing to government waste.
If only that were true.
From a report in The New York Times published just last week:
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 made by 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 that Price had spent over $1 million on private flights.
Here’s a particularly juicy episode discovered by Politico:
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.”
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 acts as a model for us of 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 administration’s mile-high elitism when he wrote:
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.
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, a la Betsy DeVos. But the reality is that they don’t really need to fly private. They do so because they feel entitled to it — but of course, as every parent knows, a sense of entitlement doesn’t always spring from a place of genuine need.
It’s almost as if they think we’re here to serve them. Yet that’s not how this is supposed to go.
As the investigations continue, every single member of this administration who is found to have unnecessarily spent taxpayer money on travel should be compelled by law to pay us all back. And they should be dismissed for trying to get away with it in the first place.
Hard to drain the swamp when the swamp is so used to draining us.