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Donald Trump

Trump’s health secretary resigns over travel flap

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:43am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:42pm

President Donald Trump’s health secretary resigned on Friday, after his costly travel triggered investigations that overshadowed the administration’s agenda and angered his boss. Tom Price’s regrets and partial repayment could not save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s cabinet to be pushed out in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. A former Republican Party congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, Price served less than eight months.

Publicly, Trump had said he was “not happy” with Price for repeatedly using private charter aircraft for official trips on the taxpayer’s dime, when cheaper commercial flights would have done in many cases.

Privately, Trump has been telling associates in recent days that his health chief had become a distraction.

On Friday the president called Price a “very fine person”, but added, “I certainly don’t like the optics”. Price said in his resignation letter that he regretted that “recent events have created a distraction”.

The flap prompted scrutiny of other cabinet members’ travel, as the House Oversight and Government Reform committee launched a government-wide investigation of top political appointees. Other department heads have been scrambling to explain their own travel.

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Price’s repayment of US$51,887.31 for his own travel costs did not placate the White House. The total travel cost, including the secretary’s entourage, was unclear. It could amount to several hundred thousand dollars.

Following Price’s resignation, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told cabinet secretaries and agency heads in a memo that approval from chief of staff John Kelly will be required for any travel on government-owned, rented, leased or chartered aircraft.

An orthopaedic surgeon turned politician, Price rose to Budget Committee chairman in the House, where he was known as a fiscal conservative. When Price joined the administration, Trump touted him as a conservative policy expert who could write a new health care bill to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

But Price became more of a supporting player in the Republican Party’s divisive health care campaign, while Vice-President Mike Pence took the lead, particularly with the Senate. The perception of Price jetting around while Republican Party lawmakers laboured to repeal “Obamacare” – including a three-nation trip in May to Africa and Europe – raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill. Price flew on military aircraft overseas.

Although much of Trump’s ire over the health care failure has been aimed at the Republican-controlled Congress, associates of the president said he also assigns some blame to Price, who he believes did not do a good job of selling the Republican Party plan.

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But House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Friday that Price had worked hard to help that chamber pass its plan before the Republican Party effort reached an impasse in the Senate. “I will always be grateful for Tom’s service to this country,” he said.

Democrats were glad to see Price go. Some urged Trump to appoint a replacement who would reach out to them.

“I hope President Trump learns from this mistake, and looks to appoint someone who can work in a bipartisan way to strengthen health care for all Americans,” said Representative Frank Pallone.

A Pence protégé, Seema Verma, has been mentioned as a possible successor. Verma already leads the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs health insurance programmes that cover more than 130 million Americans.

Another possible HHS candidate: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who won some bipartisan support in his confirmation and is well known in policy, government and industry circles.

Trump named Don Wright, a deputy assistant secretary of health, to serve as acting secretary.

Price used private charter flights on 10 trips with multiple segments, when in many cases cheaper commercial flights were available. His charter travel was first reported by the news site Politico.

On a trip in June to Nashville, Tennessee, Price also had lunch with his son, who lives there, according to Politico.

Initially, Price’s office said the secretary’s busy scheduled forced him to use charters from time to time.

But later Price’s response changed, and he said he had heard the criticism and concern, and taken it to heart.