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Price's Firing Isn't About 'Draining the Swamp.' It's About Embarrassing Trump

It was Price's hypocrisy—not his malfeasance—that did him in.
Tom Price.

Tom Price.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned on Friday, following a report by Politico that he's racked up more than $1 million in travel costs stemming from private air charters on the taxpayer's dime since May. Price is the first official cabinet secretary in President Donald Trump's embattled administration to resign; the White House told the New York Times that Trump intends on replacing Price with the current deputy assistant secretary for health, Don J. Wright. (Quite literally, the Price is now Wright.)

Price had previously vowed to curtail his outsized travel costs, announcing after the Politico report that he would reimburse taxpayers for the $51,000 he spent—the cost of his individual seat on the past flights. The revelations are especially embarrassing given that, while in Congress, Price was an especially harsh critic of lawmakers' use of private jets during the early years of the Barack Obama administration.

"I think we've made it halfway of where we ought to and that is cut it from eight to four jets," Price told CNBC in a 2009 interview. "Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets. This is just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now."

Price was a goner as soon as the Politico report came out: His hypocrisy on charter flights clashes dramatically with Trump's "drain the swamp" battle cry against public corruption. Some 64 percent of respondents in a Politico/Morning Consult poll published on Thursday considered Price's travel expenses "inappropriate"; that same day, the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into travel by senior administration officials in the White House and 24 other agencies.

Trump, for his part, seemed furious over the contradiction—an irony, given his administration's dramatic conflicts of interest and lack of transparency on issues of public corruption. "I certainly don't like the optics," Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to the Washington Post. "I'm not happy, I can tell you that. I'm not happy."

But Price's departure isn't about corruption. The public finds plenty of the Trump administration's behavior to be inappropriate: meeting with Russians, responding to National Football League protests, abusing Twitter, sassing North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the handling of health-care reform, to name just a few instances. Sure, Price's case is a little more visceral than vague topics, more in line with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's decision to hang out on a state beach he closed just before the July 4th weekend. But compared to some of the more egregious examples of executive malfeasance, why would plane travel be the last straw for an department secretary?

The truth is, Price's resignation is about Trump. Hours before Price's resignation, White House sources told the Associated Press that the travel controversy had "become a distraction" from the president's flailing legislative agenda—including the failure of congressional Republicans' last-ditch attempt to make good on their seven-year-old promise to "repeal and replace' the Affordable Care Act. You can see shades of this impulse in Trump's demotion of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council back in April for "grabbing the limelight," a wedge that eventually led to the latter's ouster.

And Price knew this was coming. During a visit to the Boy Scouts of America's National Jamboree in West Virginia, Trump jokingly warned Price that failure to deliver on one of his core campaign promise to annihilate Obamacare would yield the president's ire. "He better get [the votes]," Trump told the crowd. "Otherwise, I'll say, 'Tom, you're fired.'"

Trump may not have kept many of his campaign promises so far, but this is one that the president seems to have remembered.