Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s flights aboard military aircraft — including one controversial trip to Kentucky that set off a social media backlash and six others as well — were in line with the agency’s rules, the department’s watchdog said Thursday. The seven flights, costing more than $800,000, also included a $15,000 round-trip flight to New York to meet with President Donald Trump at Trump Tower, according to the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General.
The inquiry into Mnuchin’s air travel, prompted by an Instagram posting by his wife, found he broke no laws in his use of military aircraft but lamented the loose justification provided for such costly flights. The flight to Kentucky was on Aug. 21, when the state was abuzz over that day’s total solar eclipse. Mnuchin and his wife also toured the gold reserves at Fort Knox.
Mnuchin’s wife, Louise Linton, boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post that only became more bizarre minutes later.
When someone posted a comment on Linton’s Instagram picture that criticized the way Linton touted the trip, the treasury secretary’s wife swung back hard, mentioning the extreme wealth she and her husband control.
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“Did you think this was a personal trip?!” Linton wrote on her Instagram page, responding to the person who had written “glad we could pay for your little getaway.”
As part of her response to that criticism, Linton wrote to her critic, “You’re adorably out of touch. . .Thanks for the passive aggressive nasty comment. Your kids look very cute. Your life looks cute.”
After a barrage of criticism followed on social media, Linton apologized.
Mnuchin would add to the controversy when he had this to say about questions over whether he used a government airplane to travel to Kentucky for the total solar eclipse:
“You know, people in Kentucky took this stuff very serious. Being a New Yorker and (living for a time in) California, I was like, the eclipse? Really? I don’t have any interest in watching the eclipse.”
The investigation into Mnuchin’s travel follows a series of controversies over the lavish travel of several members of Trump’s Cabinet, including Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, who resigned last week after racking up at least $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights.
Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, used a chartered airplane for several flights, including a $12,000 trip to deliver a speech celebrating a new professional hockey team in Las Vegas. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent more than $58,000 on chartered and military flights, and David Shulkin, the veterans affairs secretary, took his wife on a 10-day trip to Europe that mixed business meetings and sightseeing, according to The Washington Post.
The Treasury report found no instances in which Mnuchin used military aircraft for private travel.
Mnuchin’s air accommodations attracted attention in August after Linton’s social media posting about the Kentucky trip and speculation that Mnuchin had timed the trip and requested the plane so that he could have an optimal view of the solar eclipse.
The report found that “there is no indication that the date was chosen to coincide with the solar eclipse.” It said that Mnuchin had asked for a Gulfstream 550 military jet in case the runway at Fort Knox was wet and because a plane with “communications capabilities is requested in the event that the secretary’s participation on a call during travel arises.” The flight cost $26,900.25.
Treasury secretaries generally take commercial flights except in extenuating circumstances because of the exorbitant costs of using military planes.
For instance, Mnuchin’s June flight to Miami for a meeting with the Mexican finance minister cost $43,725.50. While the flight was approved, the Treasury Department’s travel office sent a note to Mnuchin’s assistant that a round-trip commercial flight would cost just $688.
An Aug. 15 trip on a Gulfstream V that Mnuchin took to see Trump at Trump Tower in New York to discuss tax reform and tariffs cost $15,112.50. According to an internal email cited by the inspector general, Mnuchin needed to use the plane so that he could conduct a classified telephone conversation with Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state.
Amtrak tickets between New York and Washington can often be had for under $100 each way, though private conversations can be and are often overheard.
The inspector general noted that a memo from the Office of Management and Budget issued last week called for more “rigor” in justifying government aircraft requests and expressed concern about the “boilerplate” justifications that the Treasury Department offered.
“What is of concern is a disconnect between the standard of proof called for” by the Office of Management and Budget “and the actual amount of proof provided by Treasury and accepted by the White House in justifying these trip requests,” the inspector general wrote.
Mnuchin has made nine requests for military aircraft since assuming his position earlier this year and has taken seven flights. A request to use a military plane for his European honeymoon with his wife in August was withdrawn. A ninth flight is scheduled for later this month, when Mnuchin is expected to travel to the Middle East.
Democrats assailed Mnuchin and the Trump administration for wasting taxpayer dollars.
“It’s clear now that this scandal didn’t start or end with former HHS Secretary Tom Price,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “It’s time for the Trump administration to come clean with the American people and show us what other top officials in this administration have been using the White House as a luxury travel agency.”
For its part, the Treasury Department took solace in the fact that no violations were found and emphasized Mnuchin’s need for secure communications.
“We appreciate the inspector general’s thorough review of Treasury’s travel requests, which identified no violation of law, regulation or ethics requirements in connection with the department’s requests,” a Treasury Department spokeswoman said.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.