It never pays for public officials to appear to be living high on the hog. Well, almost never. At least that’s the advice we should have given a certain former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who took up politics only recently and now finds himself defending a $31,561 dining room set the taxpayers purchased for his office suite at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And, apparently, he didn’t even get to pick it out.
The problem, of course, is that while the agency in charge of helping the poorest Americans find decent housing was ordering a custom-made table for the secretary’s personal space, HUD officials were also planning how best to make substantial reductions to programs that help the elderly and homeless. And, worst of all, people noticed. A senior agency official claims Dr. Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, has spearheaded an effort to spend lavishly on that same office space — even if it means going around federal rules that require congressional approval for any spending on a department head above $5,000 — and the official filed a whistleblower complaint about it.
Not good, right? You are about to make decisions about how many Americans deserve to live on heating grates and in cardboard boxes while simultaneously picking out that just-so mix of mahogany and leather. Dr. Carson’s defense is that he didn’t have much direct involvement (it was a Charm City-based federally-approved contractor picking out that fancy dining room table, by the way) and that the cost isn’t out of line for such furniture. Here’s what his defense should be: I’m just following the example set by my boss and fellow cabinet members.
If there’s one thing that has defined Donald Trump’s first year in office — aside from the incompetence, erratic behavior and frequent lies, of course — it’s how in both policy and appearance this president and his minions have favored the wealthy and shamelessly gamed the system for their personal benefit. The tax plan approved by Congress last fall is surely the centerpiece of policies side so lopsidedly tilted to the rich that investor Warren E. Buffett recently estimated his company’s windfall at $29 billion. So how’s that slightly lower income tax withholding rate working out for the rest of us?
But it’s not just the giveaways, it’s the shameless takeaways, too. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t fly coach when on government business, he goes strictly first class, lest he be seated next to an irate passenger. Apparently, rolling back environmental protections has its price in rude behavior from the little people who favor clean air and water but can’t afford an upgrade when they fly. Where in the world did Mr. Pruitt get the idea it was acceptable to travel on the public dime with the champagne set? Maybe it was from former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who racked up a $1 million tab using private and military planes.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used a government aircraft on a trip to Kentucky that gave him an exceptional view of the solar eclipse at a cost of $26,900, which is like 85 percent of a Carson dining room. He even ended up reimbursing the government for the cost of his wife’s travel, $595. Readers may recall his wife, the actress Louise Linton, who after facing criticism for announcing the designer clothing she wore on that Fort Knox trip, told her critic that she was “adorably out of touch.” Those darn peasants.
Yet all that pales to the master of the opulent lifestyle who once criticized Barack Obama for playing golf too much only to set the presidential record for days on the links in his first year in office, spending tens of millions in taxpayers dollars (and better yet, directing many of those dollars at his own businesses) to fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida at least 13 times and New Jersey’s Bedminster 11. The fact-checkers at Snopes estimate his Secret Service golf cart rental bill for 2017 at more than $100,000 alone. NBC News calculates the president’s first year in office included 130 days at Trump properties. Mr. Trump refuses to give Americans a full accounting of his personal finances, so we’re kept in the dark about just how much he profits from his position and government spending at venues like his D.C. hotel or Mar-a-Lago, but he’s certainly set the tone.
Dr. Carson’s circumstances may seem more severe because he works at HUD, not Treasury or the Oval Office. But it’s still small potatoes. As Secretary Mnuchin’s spouse might observe, he’s adorably out of touch. This may be an administration that claims to be working for the little guy, but it’s a crowd that identifies more with guys who who fly in the front of the plane and play the back nine at the most exclusive clubs.