Healthcare

Price’s job seen at risk after Trump slams private jet use

President Trump on Wednesday raised the pressure on his own Health and Human Services secretary, refusing to rule out his firing.

The focus on Tom Price is intensifying following a series of Politico reports on Price's repeated use of private jets, at taxpayer expense, for official travel. Some of the flights overlapped with personal time, including a lunch with his son.

"I am not happy about it. I'm going to look at it. I am not happy about it, and I let him know it," Trump said Wednesday.

Asked if he would fire Price, Trump responded: "We'll see."

The public rebuke of Price ignited speculation about whether he might resign.

Asked about Trump's comments, Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokesperson, pointed to Price's comments on Saturday about the flights.

"As it relates to this issue, as the Secretary said over the weekend, he's heard the criticism and the concerns. He takes that very seriously and has taken it to heart," she said.

At the same time, she said, Price and the department continue to work "day and night" on challenges like the opioid epidemic and hurricanes.

Price's ability to weather the storm could be hurt by the GOP's failure this week to pass legislation repealing ObamaCare. In July, Trump joked about firing Price if he couldn't get the votes for repeal.

"He better get them, otherwise I'll say, 'Tom, you're fired,' " Trump said.

Adding to the pressure on Price, the leaders of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday said they would investigate private jet travel by all Cabinet members.

Price, a former congressman from Georgia, is not the first Trump Cabinet official to draw the president's ire.

Trump over the summer publicly dressed down Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling him "beleaguered," after his decision to recuse himself from the federal investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Sessions offered to resign, but Trump turned down the offer.

Seizing on the latest controversy, five House Democrats wrote a letter to Price on Wednesday urging him to step aside.

"In light of your breach of the public trust, we write to urge you to do the right thing and immediately tender your resignation," Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), Ted Lieu (Calif.), Brenda Lawrence (Mich.), Jamie Raskin (Md.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) wrote.

More senior Democrats, though, have not gone so far as to call for Price's ouster; instead, they signed on to a letter last week urging the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general to investigate the flights.

''We take this matter very seriously, and when questions arose about potentially inappropriate travel, we immediately began assessing the issue,'' a spokesman for the inspector general said in response.

Asked whether Price should resign, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, pointed to his letter to the inspector general and said he would leave it at that.

Politico reported that Price has taken at least 24 private flights since May, at a cost of roughly $300,000 to taxpayers. He took those flights even when cheaper, commercial options were available.

Price has defended the flights, saying in a Fox News interview on Saturday that they were for "official business."

"But we've heard the criticism, we've heard the concerns, and we take that very seriously and have taken that to heart," he said.

Price said he would stop taking the jet flights while the inspector general conducts the review.

It's not the first time the ethics of the Health secretary have been called into question. His stock trades on medical companies while a member of Congress have also received heavy scrutiny.

During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers zeroed in on Price's purchase of stock as part of a private offering for the biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics. He was able to buy the shares at a discount.

Republican senators on Wednesday largely deflected questions about Price's use of private flights.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate's Oversight panel, said he was waiting for the inspector general report.

"I'm chairman of the committee that really relies on inspector generals to investigate things, issue reports," he said. "I know [the Health and Human Services] inspector general is looking at this, and I'll wait for their report before I comment further."

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R), from Price's home state of Georgia, declined to defend or criticize the secretary.

"I'm not about to get into that discussion," he said when asked if Trump should fire Price. He noted that it is the "president's prerogative" to fire any member of the Cabinet.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R), also from Georgia, declined to criticize Price. He said Price could have been flying due to security concerns or because commercial flights weren't available in response to hurricanes.

"I want to reserve judgment until we know why exactly he was choosing to fly that way," he said. "I have been on commercial flights with Secretary Price since he's been secretary."

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said Price had been "dumb" for taking the private flights, but said if he stopped doing so that should be enough.

"I think he's sorry he did it, and let's move on," he said. "What's there to investigate?"

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