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Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Under Investigation For Trip That Coincided With Eclipse

Steve Mnuchin Wife Plane

The Treasury Department’s Inspector General is looking into a trip that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin took to Fort Knox, Kentucky that just happened to coincide with last month’s total eclipse of the sun:

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing the flight taken by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, last week to Louisville and Fort Knox, Ky., following criticism of their use of a government plane on a trip that involved viewing the solar eclipse.

“We are reviewing the circumstances of the Secretary’s August 21 flight . . . to determine whether all applicable travel, ethics, and appropriation laws and policies were observed,” counsel Rich Delmar wrote in a statement to The Washington Post late Thursday.

“When our review is complete, we will advise the appropriate officials, in accordance with the Inspector General Act and established procedures,” Delmar added.

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing the flight taken by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, last week to Louisville and Fort Knox, Ky., following criticism of their use of a government plane on a trip that involved viewing the solar eclipse.

“We are reviewing the circumstances of the Secretary’s August 21 flight . . . to determine whether all applicable travel, ethics, and appropriation laws and policies were observed,” counsel Rich Delmar wrote in a statement to The Washington Post late Thursday.

“When our review is complete, we will advise the appropriate officials, in accordance with the Inspector General Act and established procedures,” Delmar added.

Treasury officials have defended Mnuchin’s Kentucky visit as “official government travel” worthy of the flight aboard an Air Force jet. The one-day trip included stops at a Louisville chamber luncheon and America’s famous gold stash at Fort Knox, where Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others viewed the eclipse.

“The Secretary of the Treasury at times needs to use a government aircraft to facilitate his travel schedule and to ensure uninterrupted access to secure communications,” a Treasury spokesperson said this week. “The Department of the Treasury sought and received the appropriate approval from the White House. Secretary Mnuchin has reimbursed the government for the cost of Ms. Linton’s travel in accordance with the long-standing policy regarding private citizens on military aircraft.”

The White House referred comment to the Treasury.

Treasury secretaries and other Cabinet members not involved with national security have traditionally flown on government planes only on rare occasions, including international trips, while taking commercial airlines for other domestic travels.

Cabinet officials can request government flights for specific criteria, although Department of Defense policy calls it “a premium mode of travel involving high costs and limited resources” and urges federal employees to make “every effort . . . to minimize travel cost.”

As noted, Mnuchin has justified the use of a government plane to travel to Kentucky by claiming that he was on official business, and it is apparently true that he met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while he was there. However, this doesn’t seem to me to be a sufficient answer to the question of why he needed to use a government jet to travel to Kentucky, or why he needed to specifically schedule a meeting with McConnell on the same day as the eclipse in an area that ‘just happened’ to be in the zone where a total eclipse would be visible. Additionally, the fact that Mnuchin brought his wife along does make this seem like more of a social visit than an official one. After all, Mnuchin and McConnell could always talk on the phone, meet at a time when they both were in Washington, or meet in Kentucky at any other time during the month of August. The fact that their meeting just happened to coincide with the eclipse and that Mnuchin, his wife, and McConnell spent at least part of the time viewing the eclipse from the roof of one of the buildings on Fort Knox belies the assertion that this was an “official” visit of any kind. At the very least, it seems clear that an investigation is warranted.

Jazz Shaw, who was among the millions of Americans who traveled to see the eclipse in person, agrees:

In conclusion, my initial suspicions about this being a second fishing expedition don’t look all that solid once you dig into the details. It may certainly turn out that this was an official business trip which will pass inspection for the costs incurred, but you can’t deny that the optics of it are bad enough to warrant a closer look. Mnuchin’s people are saying the trip was planned months in advance, but hey… so was mine. It came down to a last minute decision based on cloud cover, but Kentucky was always a top choice for many in the eastern half of the country who were hoping to witness the sun going dark.

Does that justify making him refund the cost of the trip if he was also engaged in legitimate Treasury business down there? I would assume not. But it certainly leaves the taxpayers with a rather unpleasant image.

In the end, of course, this is hardly the biggest story in Washington. If the IG finds that Mnuchin’s use of a government plane was improper in some way, then he’ll most likely simply be required to reimburse the government for the expense of his travel just like he apparently covered the expense associated with bringing his wife with him from personal funds. At the same time, though, it is a pretty apt demonstration of the extent to which the folks inside the Beltway view their jobs as sinecures from which they can profit and obtain access to luxuries that aren’t generally available to the rest of us. Millions of Americans traveled to the totality zone to view the eclipse two weeks ago, and they used their own funds to get there. Many of them took time off of work to do so, thus losing money in the process. But they did it because they wanted to be part of a once in a lifetime event, which is entirely understandable. I also don’t blame Mnuchin and his wife for wanting to be part of the event. As multi-millionaires, though, they could have easily been able to afford the cost of an airplane ticket to Kentucky or anywhere else in the totality zone. They didn’t have to use a government jet to get there, and the fact that they did is a perfect reflection of the elitism that the politically and financially powerful are so used to exercising.

I’ll leave it to the Treasury Departments IG and the appropriate government ethics officers to determine if Mnuchin ought to reimburse the government for his travel, but at the very least this doesn’t look good for appearances sake and Mnuchin and others like him ought to be more careful about who pays the bill when they’re mixing business and pleasure like this.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Numerous sources, including the WaPo, CNN, and CBS have reported that the Mnuchins have already reimbursed the government for the trip, so I’m a little confused about that aspect of the matter.

    Is this some kind of fallout from Louise Linton’s Instagram caper?

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  2. The report about reimbursement appears to apply to a previous trip that involved use of government aircraft, not this one.

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  3. CSK says:

    Doug: Bloomberg reports that the review is about the eclipse junket. It may be more about the use of a government aircraft than reimbursement. They could have taken a commercial flight instead..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Scott says:

    I tend not to get exercised over these kind of things; however, I know it makes a lot of people feel good to exercise their outrage muscles. I think a minor amount of bennies are OK for high ranking people just like there is in private business where it could be argued that shareholders are shortchanged just like taxpayers.

    Unfortunately, there will be more ink spilt here than on the so-called tax reform package where there will be a lot more tax cuts than any tax reforms.

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    @Scott:..I think a minor amount of bennies are OK for high ranking people just like there is in private business where it could be argued that shareholders are shortchanged just like taxpayers.

    Citizens are not compelled by the authority of the United States government to buy stock in publicly traded corporations.
    Citizens do not have a choice about paying taxes.

    By the way what is Chump hiding? Why won’t he release his tax filings?

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  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Today’s Vocabulary Lesson
    Benzedrine, colloquially referred to as bennies, is the brand name of the first pharmaceutical drug that contained amphetamine. The drug contained the racemic mixture of amphetamine, which is an equal parts mixture of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine.
    WikiP

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  7. CSK says:

    @Scott:

    Yeah. Given what a dumpster fire the entire Trump administration is, the flames being stoked by the malevolent buffoon squatting in the Oval Office, I can’t get excited about this, especially if the Mnuchins reimbursed the government.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: Someone once told me that compassion is not a limited resource — it’s an aspirational statement, since people are inherently flawed in many ways, but it’s a good ideal to strive for even though we can never get there.

    The Trump administration gives us the opportunity to test whether outrage and disgust are limited resources as well.

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  9. AnonPerson says:

    I’m puzzled though. Fort Knox was not in the path of totality. If you are not in totality, it’s not worth a great deal of effort (at least in my opinion):

    https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/ky.jpg

    Basically, Mnuchin didn’t seem to really care that much about the eclipse, or otherwise he would have made sure to be in totality, which makes the whole thing even more puzzling.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    Two things: reimbursing for the equivalent of the price of two airline tickets is a drop I. The bucket compared what this flight cost.

    The optics of this investigation is made infinitely worse by the nasty, petty and privileged twitter war Mnuchin’s wife, Marie Antoinette, had with a peasant she so clearly despised for having the temerity to question a member of the elite. This is now going to get reported over and over.

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  11. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:

    I think it’s possible for people to become so outraged and disgusted that, after a while, they become numb. So sure, there could be a threshold.

    But in Trump’s case, there’s the added factor that he’s entertaining in a grotesque fashion. He’s such a vulgarian/buffoon/charlatan that he exercises a continuing macabre fascination along with eliciting continuing outrage and disgust.

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  12. Mikey says:

    Meh. If Mnuchin followed applicable regulations and reimbursed the cost to fly his wife (assuming it was required by said regulations) this isn’t anything. We federal employees can bring our spouses along on work trips, we just have to pay their way.

    I think this wouldn’t even have risen to any level of awareness had his wife not engaged in a petty Instagram war with someone who called her out for a display of narcissistic entitlement.

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  13. Bill says:

    @CSK:

    They could have taken a commercial flight instead..

    What and fly with the unwashed masses? That would risk contamination and simply won’t do!

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  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    Of course the irony is that if Mnuchin’s wife hadn’t posted about her baubles and then got snippy with a critic, no one would have known or cared about the trip, except some GS 4 who needed to review it.

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  15. Mister Bluster says:

    …use of a government plane…

    @Mikey:..We federal employees can bring our spouses along on work trips, we just have to pay their way.

    So Mikey, how about a review of your flights on an “Air Force jet”. Is the service comparable with United or Spirit? Do you get a decent meal or just a bag of government surplus peanuts? What kind of security do you pass through? Pat down? Cavity search? How much luggage can you check for free? What can you carry on?
    Enquiring minds want to know!

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  16. Mikey says:

    @Mister Bluster: Haha…I’m not at that level, we still have to fly commercial.

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  17. Tyrell says:

    An airplane is the last place a person would want to be during the eclipse. Scientists had reported the dangers of solar flares and sun storms. The sun is in a cycle of increased activity. Anyone going closer to the sun would be exposed to waves of high radiation, gamma, and cosmic rays.
    Just look at the natural events that are occurring.

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  18. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mikey:..Haha…I’m not at that level, we still have to fly commercial.

    So your dismissal of the Treasury Secretary’s use of the United States Government’s airplane, (Meh…this isn’t anything.) can’t really be based on your experience compared to his.
    What else you got?

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