Tom Price’s downfall was his penchant for pricey jets.
But his demise was months in the making, as the president continued to lose trust in the Health and Human Services secretary who rarely attended Oval Office strategy meetings, had little sway or influence on Capitol Hill, and was associated in the president’s mind with one of the administration’s biggest defeats — the failure to repeal Obamacare.
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Of particular notoriety: A picture of Price in March drinking at Bullfeathers, a famed Capitol Hill bar, as his colleagues tried to wrangle votes for the president’s signature initiative.
Price’s lack of goodwill with Trump and other senior administration officials ultimately doomed his chances of survival, even though many administration officials believed the furor would blow over when news first broke that Price spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on private jets.
By early this week, however, it became clear that the growing firestorm over Price’s travel was only getting worse. A number of officials in the White House said HHS had badly handled the response to the controversy — and was caught off guard by the facts. And it was hard to find a power player in the White House who would defend Price to the president.
POLITICO published five stories over the last 10 days that revealed Price had spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on travel since May, including overseas flights on military aircrafts and more than two dozen domestic trips on private planes.
Other media outlets amplified the revelations, with cable news frequently running damaging chyrons and reporters peppering Trump and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the growing scandal throughout the week.
The president grew more angry, fuming to West Wing aides about the optics of a member of the administration spending so lavishly. The almost daily drip of revelations — including that Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to a Georgia resort where he and his wife own land — further incensed the president.
Meanwhile, Trump was intensely frustrated by his unsuccessful health care push and associated Price with the failure, several aides said. He joked at a rally in July he would fire Price if he didn’t get the votes for the Obamacare repeal.
While the White House has weathered a steady stream of mini-scandals since Trump took office, this one was different, according to administration officials, because it made Price look like the kind of creature of Washington that the president had railed against on the campaign trail.
Trump himself blasted Price on Friday for what he suggested was frivolous spending in light of the administration’s efforts to impose fiscal conservatism on the federal government.
“I’ve saved hundreds of millions of dollars,” the president told reporters on Friday when he was asked if he had lost confidence in Price. “So I don’t like the optics of what you just saw.”
Administration officials grew increasingly certain on Friday that Price would be ousted, but the final decision happened quickly, according to aides, who had cautioned as late as Friday afternoon that Trump might change his mind.
Though he nurtured a reputation as a ruthless boss on The Apprentice, Trump often hesitates to fire people — and sometimes takes weeks to make a final decision. In this case though, the president was counseled that the travel stories had become a distraction from his policy agenda, especially his tax reform push, according to an administration official.
There was also little personal chemistry between the two men.
The president was initially attracted to Price because he was a doctor, a supporter and “looked the part,” one adviser with direct knowledge said, plus he was given positive reviews from House Speaker Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill.
He soon became a bit player in the administration.
Price was often left out of senior level meetings in the Oval Office on Obamacare repeal, even as other top deputies attended, according to several people with knowledge of the matter.
The president and a number of top aides had little faith in his political instincts.
Leading the effort to negotiate with senators on the Hill was Seema Verma from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Marc Short, head of legislative affairs. Two senior White House officials said Price’s relationships at the Capitol were not as good as he promised — and that some members preferred not to deal with him. Many members saw him as prickly and not particularly likable, one senior GOP aide said, damaging his ability to negotiate.
Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, was more involved in policy decisions than Price, these people said.
Price was often out of town during key stretches of the presidency, and while several senior officials said they weren’t aware of his private jet use, there was a general consensus that he was often nowhere to be found.
“I didn’t know he was on private jets,” one senior administration official said. “I knew he was never there.”
Price’s press office initially reassured the White House that the story would quickly pass and argued that Price needed charter jets to respond to public health emergencies like the recent hurricanes.
After POLITICO identified at least 17 charter flights that took place before the first storm — Hurricane Harvey — hit in late August, and included flights that did not appear to be for urgent public health priorities, HHS then changed its argument: Price needed charter aircraft “to accommodate his demanding schedule,” a spokesperson allowed last week.
As he often does when making a big decision, the president began making calls on Thursday night and Friday morning to ask whether he should fire Price.
Trump also told aides that if Price had a defense, he would give it. “I don’t think he has any defense for it,” one person said, summarizing Trump’s comments. “He is just taking it.”
Price did make a last-ditch effort to save his job, announcing on Thursday that he would reimburse the federal government for the cost of his seat on the domestic flights, a figure that reportedly totals nearly $52,000 — just a fraction of the total cost of the trips. The president didn’t like that Price was only offering to pay back some of the flights, and was struck by TV coverage that showed the total cost as more than $1 million, officials said.
The secretary also tried to go on Fox News and assuage the president. It didn’t work.
Rumors began swirling in HHS early Friday that Price might be fired. But, in an apparent sign of how quickly the final decision was made, Price was conducting business as usual late Friday.
Just minutes before Price’s resignation became official, the secretary sent an email to HHS officials outlining next steps on the “Reimagine HHS initiative,” a broad reorganizational effort of the department that was expected to result in staff reductions. The email outlined senior HHS officials who will be spearheading the process.
“Thank you for all your dedication and support, and we look forward to being in touch soon,” Price wrote, according to the email, which was obtained by POLITICO.
Across town at the White House, Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly was calling Hill leadership to tell them Price was out.
One senior official said the tipping point was when the White House couldn’t contain the scandal and it became an administration-wide story.
Other members of Trump’s Cabinet were coming under increased criticism for their use of military and private aircraft, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Got to the point he was causing problems for everybody,” this person said. “He could have lasted maybe if it didn’t just get worse every day.”