Much like Donald Trump, the Trump administration seemed to be made of a cutting-edge, space-age substance to which nothing could stick. Teflon Don didn’t even start to capture it.
Then, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was caught taking chartered flights on taxpayer money. The scandal peaked on Friday afternoon when Price unceremoniously resigned.
Of all the scandals that have erupted around Trump—and there have been plenty—Price’s is among the most mundane. Government officials are routinely enjoying the perks of their position and occasionally having to answer for it. The notion that a relatively minor part of the Trump administration did this would seem to be par for the Trump-branded course.
And yet, with issues like the disaster in Puerto Rico, escalating tensions with North Korea, and a major cultural moment in the NFL, the Price fiasco has shown remarkable staying power.
There’s just something about it. There might not be a better example of fat cat/Washington D.C. swamp-monster activity than taking chartered flights.
This speaks to what flying has become in U.S. culture. Plane travel is accessible to the majority of Americans, a shared experience we all know and understand. It’s also a nonstop reminder of the haves and have nots. On the low end, flying is a stressful exercise. It’s waiting in line with your fellow plebes, herded into waiting areas, and scanned thoroughly. Don’t even think about having a bottle of water.
Meanwhile, we all know what the rich folks get to do. They either breeze through security or skip it altogether. They take private jets and sip champagne and eat some really expensive shellfish we probably haven’t even heard of. For them, travel isn’t stressful; it’s just another chance to enjoy the finer things in life.
The use of private jets in particular has become a hot topic since the financial crisis, when the lavish spending of CEOs became an example of the decadence enjoyed by executives whose companies had cratered. Since then, the air travel experience has only gotten worse, making the luxury of high-end flights seem all the more extravagant.
I guess tom price finally paid for his seat on those planes!!!!
literally the taxpayer did but, you know, metaphorically
— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) September 29, 2017
Trump has long been associated with exactly this kind of thing—both extravagance and private air travel. His airplanes—unmistakably emblazoned with “TRUMP”—became something of a signature, especially during his presidential campaign. Trump might be the poster child of private air travel.
He also has portrayed himself as the poster child of the “drain the swamp” mentality. Trump was supposed to come to Washington, D.C. and clean house. Trump was supposed to look out for the little guy, the taxpayer, the guy who had been taken advantage of by D.C. bureaucrats. If anything symbolized the exact opposite of Trump’s spin, it was expensive and unnecessary private flights.
Of course, Trump himself has shown little shyness in racking up air miles on the taxpayer dime, with near-constant trips to his Mar-a-lago estate in Florida. There’s also been other stories about people in his administration living lavishly—particularly when the wife of Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin went off on Instagram over critical comments on a photo of her exiting a U.S. government aircraft posted with hashtags featuring luxury brands.
These are the kinds of bad optics that can wear on a presidency and help create a narrative. Price’s own decisions eventually brought him down, but not without a build up that included some unforced errors from others in the Trump administration—and a healthy public interest in just how bad air travel is for the rest of us.