Price in Trump's crosshairs as expensive travel scrutinized

HHS secretary says he won't take any more charters

HHS secretary to cut a check for flights

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The White House said Thursday it was considering adopting new oversight of administration officials' use of private planes as President Donald Trump's health boss -- who announced he would pay back the government for only part of his series of charter flights -- finds his job in jeopardy.

Trump has fumed about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's use of private jets to travel around the country on routes easily accessible by commercial means. He's been encouraged by some advisers to fire Price in a show of authority, but as of Thursday Trump has indicated in private he's not ready to dismiss the former congressman.

Price said Thursday he would reimburse the US government for the cost of his private air travel, though not for the full cost of chartering the planes, which ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, a spokesperson for HHS said Price would cut a check to the US Treasury for $51,887.31, the amount for his seat on the private flights he took.

"By paying for my portions of these trips, I think it's a huge demonstration. It's unique. It's never been done before, unprecedented, as I'm told," Price said on Fox News.

Asked by CNN's Greg Wallace Thursday afternoon if he planned to stay in his job, Price said: "Absolutely."

'Full review'

Speaking at the White House briefing on Thursday, press secretary Sarah Sanders remained noncommittal about Price's future in the administration.

"We're going to conduct a full review and we'll see what happens," Sanders said.

But she indicated the administration was taking steps to halt the use of private air travel by administration officials. All private flights have been frozen at the Department of Health and Human Services pending a more thorough review, Sanders said. She also said the White House was examining whether it should adopt more oversight of Cabinet secretaries' travel going forward.

"The White House does not have a role on the front end of approving private charter flights at the agencies and that is something that we're certainly looking into," she said.

The moves come amid a growing controversy over the use of private planes by Trump's appointees. Since news of Price's travel emerged, other secretaries -- including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt -- were found to have traveled aboard private charter flights on routes where commercial options were available. It came amid a parallel dust-up over Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's use of military aircraft for trips unrelated to national security.

A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services said Thursday that Price took 13 trips on a private plane -- two more than he said he'd taken during a televised interview on Fox News over the weekend. The spokesperson said after an extensive review of his travel, the agency discovered two more trips.

According to officials from past administrations, private plane use by Cabinet secretaries would have gone through legal and ethics reviews before being approved at the agency level. But they noted the White House would not need to sign off except in cases where an official requested use of a military aircraft.

Names floated

Inside the White House, the story has caused anguish among some of Trump's top aides, who view the flights as damaging to an administration that vowed to eliminate waste. Price's standing has been uncertain since revelations about the private plane use emerged earlier this month. News of the flights outraged Trump, who felt it made his administration look abusive of taxpayer dollars and extravagant.

Trump, who despite his "you're fired" tagline has avoided dismissing other administration officials who drew his ire, has so far told top officials that he's willing to keep Price on unless the controversy devolve further.

Nevertheless, two Republican sources familiar with discussions at the White House and on Capitol Hill say there are names being floated as possible replacements for Price, should more damaging information surface.

Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma are both being mentioned, these sources said.

'I am not happy'

On Wednesday, Trump's anger boiled to the surface. He told reporters on the White House South Lawn he was displeased and demanding answers.

"I will look into it. And I will tell you, personally, I'm not happy about it. I am not happy," Trump said.

Trump spoke with Price on Wednesday morning about the flights, and the health secretary later held a phone conversation with Trump's chief of staff John Kelly to discuss the matter.

In neither conversation did Price offer his resignation, and on Thursday he told reporters at an event promoting flu shots that he remained in good standing at the White House.

"We're going to work through this, and I think we've still got the confidence of the President," Price said.

He added later on Fox that he was working to "not only regain the trust of the American people, but to regain the trust of the administration and the President."

Across Washington, however, there was less confidence in Price's standing. Inside his agency, tensions are running high amid the private plane controversy, according to people familiar with the mood there. In a sign of how sensitive the story has become, some officials are reticent to even banter in person about the matter.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, sent a letter to Trump asking for an explanation to the travel costs.

"‎Considering the many travel options to and from Washington, DC, I'm urging you to emphasize to Cabinet secretaries the necessity of using reasonable and cost-effective modes of travel in accordance with federal restrictions," Grassley wrote.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, where Price served for more than a decade as a lawmaker from Georgia, confusion abounded about his choice to charter flights.

"I think the President's mad as hell," a Republican senator told CNN. The senator spoke anonymously to convey a candid assessment of Trump's mindset. "What the f*** was he thinking?"

"It's just stupid," the senator said of Price's choices.


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