Evidence of the Trump administration’s corruption and misuse of government funds is still coming to light, despite its past dubious attempts to withhold information.
American Oversight recently obtained records from the Department of Defense detailing a number of trips taken by cabinet and White House officials on military airplanes during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Top administration aides had been frequently criticized for taxpayer-funded travel excesses — with former Health Secretary Tom Price even resigning in 2017 over his abuse of government resources — but the documents are notable in how hard the administration seemingly worked to obscure them from public eyes.
The records concern several visits by top officials to former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., as well as to multiple other destinations, using military aircraft. While the memos do not list cost estimates, they do include the officials’ stated rationale for requesting such travel arrangements. In Freedom of Information Act litigation for the records, which American Oversight initiated in 2018, the administration’s lawyers had claimed that the memos — which the government had applied heavy redactions to, and in some cases withheld completely — were exempt from disclosure under the presidential communications privilege.
After negotiation, American Oversight finally obtained the records with the redactions lifted. The records did not contain presidential communications, but they did reveal requests to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin (requests that the administration had claimed constituted presidential communications) made by senior officials for the use of military aircraft. Along with the trips to Mar-a-Lago, the memos also list Tom Price’s questionable justifications for his use of chartered and military planes, a White House official’s unexplained nights in London and Paris tacked on to an official trip, and a 2017 visit to Ukraine by then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
One request submitted on behalf of Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, was for round-trip travel “for official functions” on Feb. 19, 2017. The flight manifest — which lists Office of Management and Budget officials Mick Mulvaney, Emma Doyle, and Russ Vought; White House advisers Andrew Bremberg and Katy Talento; and Department of Health and Human Services officials John Brooks and Nina Shaefer — indicates that the group went first to Georgia to pick up Price, then flew to West Palm Beach and back to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, all in the same day. The day before, Trump had held his first reelection campaign rally in Melbourne, Fa., and had attended a controversial fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.
Over the next month, the administration focused heavily on what would be a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On March 15, Secretary Price took military aircraft to attend a town hall in New York City, saying a “commercial flight would not be feasible” because of “the critical demands on the Secretary’s schedule in relation to supporting the President’s signature health care reform initiative.”
For a weeklong trip to Asia in August 2017, including stops in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh, and Hanoi, Price claimed he needed the secure communication capabilities of military aircrafts “in case of an incident of national significance” because Congress had yet to confirm a deputy secretary who could act on his behalf. Price’s wife accompanied him on this trip.
The next month, Price resigned after Politico reported that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars had been used for his travel on private jets and military planes. In November 2017, according to the records, HHS filed an addendum related to Price’s August trip, citing the Aug. 25 classification of Hurricane Harvey as a Category IV storm to justify his use of a chartered aircraft.
(Price was far from the only Trump cabinet member to elicit fierce criticism for their taxpayer-funded trips. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, came under fire for his first-class travel habits and for spending tens of thousands on government planes. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spent nearly $1 million using military aircraft during his first year in office, including a trip he and his wife took to Kentucky to see the solar eclipse. American Oversight found that Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, spent an estimated $1 million using military aircraft, often for “personal travel”; we also uncovered records indicating that his next top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, had spent more than $100,000 using military planes to visit his home state of Kansas while serving as CIA director in 2017.)
The records recently obtained by American Oversight also provide a glimpse of the former president’s penchant for conducting official work at properties owned by his personal business, from which he never financially divested.
In early April 2017, a Chinese delegation led by President Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago instead of the White House, where foreign delegations are normally welcomed. H.R. McMaster, assistant to the president for national security, submitted a request for the use of a military aircraft for Tillerson to visit Mar-a-Lago from April 6 through April 8 “in furtherance of the President’s foreign policy.” Separately, another request for transportation to Mar-a-Lago for White House staff on April 6 listed Priebus, then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, White House adviser Gary Cohn, and others as passengers.
The records also detail a June 24, 2017, trip to Israel taken by Thomas Bossert, who was then an assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, “to follow up on the President’s commitment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” The request also included a night in Paris followed by a night in London, with Bossert’s staff noting that the Paris and London legs could be switched if it were easier for coordination.
Finally, then-Secretary Perry’s request to travel to Kyiv, Ukraine, in late August 2017 “to attend energy related meetings with the Ukrainian Prime Minister and other government officials” also lists his wife and daughter as accompanying him on the trip. (Read more about our investigations into Perry’s involvement in Trump’s shadow Ukraine policy and his energy industry connections.) American Oversight will continue to investigate the corruption and misuse of government funds by members of the Trump administration — visit our Trump Accountability page for more on our continuing investigations.