It’s a testament to how thoroughly weird things are now here in Washington that so far the most normal event of the Trump era is a political scandal.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was revealed, in a series of reports by Politico, to be unnecessarily and improperly traveling on private jets, at a total cost of over $1 million to taxpayers. Following public condemnation from President Donald Trump, Price resigned — effective 11:59 p.m. on Friday.
This is how it ought to go down, of course, anytime a public servant is found fleecing the public. But political normalcy as we once understood it feels very far away these days. Administration scandals of yore — from gaffes to behavioral or ethical misdeeds — appear quaint next to the strange new category of questions that hangs over the current president, who uses the office to promote his chain of hotels and is being investigated by multiple entities for allegedly colluding with Russia in the run up to the election.
The fall of Price is a rare example of a violation of the rules by an administration official having immediate consequences, and a rarer example of Trump appearing mindful of optics in a traditional sense. The president even used the term himself: “I don’t like the optics,” he remarked on Friday afternoon, before Price’s fate was known. He said it “would be unacceptable” for Price to only partially reimburse the government for his flights, like he had announced he planned to.
Enough Trump officials (and Trump himself) have made mistakes that we can be fairly certain it wasn’t that mistake alone that did Price in. Rather, it was the kind of mistake he made and his standing with the president when he made it.
The Trump campaign was in many ways about the candidate’s own excess. During his announcement that he would seek the Republican nomination, on June 16, 2015, Trump bragged, “I’m really rich,” and disclosed, “I have a total net worth of $8,737,540,000.” He traveled the country on his private Boeing 757 — Trump Force One — complete with gold-plated seat belts. But during that same speech, Trump explained that there was a method to his ostentatiousness, one that he believed would guide the country to a better place. It came up while he criticized the Obama administration for spending too much money on the Affordable Care Act website. “I have so many websites,” he said. “I have them all over the place. I hire people, they do a website, it costs me $3.” Translation: The government is screwing you over because they don’t know the Art of the Deal. Price’s publicly funded jets, then, were a form of unsanctioned gaudiness, and not compatible with Trump’s own displays. As the president explained on Friday afternoon: “We have great secretaries and we have some that actually own their own planes, as you know. That solves that.”
Sam Nunberg, a former advisor to the Trump campaign, agreed to speak on the record about Price. “I don’t care, the fucker is gone,” he said, describing Price as a “hypocrite.”
“Price made him look like a bad manager with government appointees who are taking advantage of the taxpayer,” Nunberg said of the implications for the president.
Additionally, he noted, “Price failed to get the Obamacare repeal through. So, he had two big strikes.”
In March, as his colleagues attempted to get the votes for the Republican health-care bill, Price was photographed drinking at Bullfeathers, a bar on Capitol Hill. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times explained on Twitter, “Price has been out of [Trump’s] favor” since that night.
A source close to the White House suggested that the president had additionally been “disappointed” that Price’s jet scandal was distracting from the unveiling of the White House’s tax proposal. “This displaces 30 percent of the weekend shows when the president needs his best spokesmen out there pitching his tax agenda, not airplanes,” the source said.
Ultimately, Price’s departure seems less like a sign that the Trump administration will adopt the old standards for acceptable behavior in Washington, and more like a warning for officials who might’ve considered breaking the rules before building up sufficient goodwill with the president. So, perhaps all remains normal in Trump’s D.C., which is to say not at all.