Too strapped for cash to keep poor people off the street, President Donald Trump’s housing officials are apparently flush enough to attempt to buy a $31,000 dining set for a little-used formal space in Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s office.
New political staffers at the agency repeatedly pressured a career staffer to circumvent laws governing public spending on office amenities to get Carson the fancy new furniture, according to reports from the Guardian and the New York Times.
The staffer believes she was punished for insisting on the letter of the law in the face of repeated requests that she “find money” for Carson’s wife, Candy, to redecorate his offices. She has filed a complaint over her subsequent demotion at the agency. Carson, for his part, initially stated that he “[did] not believe the cost was too steep and [did] not intend to return” the new dining table and chairs, according to the Times.
Carson’s team made the purchases while seeking multi-billion-dollar cuts to HUD’s actual program offerings, changes that would kick hundreds of thousands of poor people out onto the street.
On Thursday, HUD Communications Director Raffi Williams stated that, “at the request of the Secretary, the agency is working to rescind the order for the dining room set.”
Carson’s high-on-the-hog taste in office furniture puts him in good company among Trump executive staff, many of whom have been caught treating themselves to frivolous luxuries at taxpayer expense. In less than 14 months, Trump’s Secretaries of Treasury, Interior, Health and Human Services, and Environmental Protection have all been caught making themselves unnecessarily cozy with public funds.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke charged a $40,000 helicopter tour of Nevada to a department fund for wildfire preparedness, one of several dubious travel expenses the former congressman has accrued. EPA head Scott Pruitt has taken to flying first class or business class everywhere he goes, with staffers insisting the costs are warranted because people are rude to him if he sits in coach.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who built a fortune through aggressive foreclosure practices in the private sector before joining Team Trump, has billed taxpayers roughly $800,000 for travel on military jets, including a trip to Fort Knox with his wife during the rare eclipse last summer. (The couple had planned to use military planes for their honeymoon too, until scrutiny of Mnuchin’s pricey travel habits began generating embarassing headlines.)
Mnuchin should perhaps count himself lucky to still have a job. Trump’s first HHS Secretary quit over a public airfare tab only half as large. Tom Price was forced to resign in the fall, with long-running Republican schemes to repeal and replace the not-yet-10-year-old overhaul of the nation’s health insurance system still unresolved, after reporters uncovered $400,000 in chartered plane travel incurred by the wealthy former congressman.
Carson’s dining set is chump change compared to the figures Pruitt, Mnuchin, Zinke, and Price have billed the government for cushy rides. But the nature of Carson’s work makes for a more damaging contrast.
Even at current funding levels, HUD is failing to serve hundreds of thousands of families who qualify for housing assistance based on their paltry incomes. HUD is watching tens of thousands of public housing units collapse into such disrepair that they are unfit for human habitation. Carson saw the human toll of that neglect in person last summer when he visited with hundreds of families facing eviction and dispersal in Cairo, Illinois, because the public housing projects there have been deemed beyond salvage by building inspectors and budget officials.
Yet Carson and Trump are looking to cut HUD funding even further. Trump’s first two budget plans each propose to shred the agency. The cuts — a mix of under-funding, program elimination, and sneakier tweaks to the formulas by which rent support levels are calculated — represent a conscious choice to abandon the government’s decades-long commitment to ensuring the destitute have someplace safe to sleep, cook, and raise children. The plans would evict hundreds of thousands of families — millions of the poorest people in the country — from their homes, with no plan to get them sheltered anew elsewhere.
While Carson’s staff cooked up this recipe for making millions of Americans homeless in the name of taxpayer thrift, the once-adored neurosurgeon and author was looking to spruce up his own offices. Meanwhile, HUD’s career public servants weren’t just watching the new bosses try to gut their ability to actually help people in need. They were also watching Trump suggest that they themselves are the problem with government service provision in his State of the Union, where he demanded that each executive agency gin up a plan to cut staff and shave their operations budgets in the name of efficiency.
This article has been updated to include HUD’s new statement about attempting to rescind the dining room set order.