President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, reportedly defended an extravagant expense made by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
Carson recently directed HUD to use some of the agency’s funds to purchase a $31,000 dining set for a rarely-used formal space in his office. As Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported following an off-the-record session with reporters:
“Kelly said $31,000 sounds like a lot of money, but to put it in context he asked a reporter how much they think the chair they’re sitting on costs. Kelly said it’s probably worth hundreds of dollars but it will last a long time. He rationalized Carson’s $31,000 outlay by saying the table could last for 80 or 100 years.”
When asked if there were any plans to fire Carson, Kelly remarked that he takes these kinds of decisions seriously. Reporters meeting with Kelly were left with the impression that Carson would not be fired. Kelly himself is reportedly on the way out, according to some White House sources.
When news of the expensive dining set first broke, both Carson and his wife Candy denied having any involvement in choosing the table and claimed they were surprised to learn of its cost. Newly released emails first reported by CNN, however, show the Carsons actually selected the furniture themselves.
According to CNN’s report, “an August email from a career administration staffer, with the subject line ‘Secretary’s dining room set needed,’ to Carson’s assistant refers to ‘printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.’” The emails do not indicate that Carson expressed concern about the dining set’s cost, or made moves to cancel the order until news of the price broke.
Carson didn’t just want an expensive dining table, however. The emails also reveled Carson asked his staff about the legality of using HUD funds to commission a $25,000 portrait. The New York Times notes there are no portraits of Carson’s predecessors in the HUD office. Carson already has a portrait of himself at his home, posed next to rendering of Jesus Christ, no less.
The HUD secretary’s extravagant expense comes at a time when the agency is making severe cuts to affordable housing programs. Carson supports Trump’s budget proposal, which includes cuts to the HUD budget, Carson claims the cuts will move “people toward self-sufficiency.”
The proposed budget is focused on moving more people toward self-sufficiency through reforming rental assistance programs and moving aging public housing to more sustainable platforms.
— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) February 12, 2018
This would not be the first out-of-touch mishap to occur in the Trump cabinet. Former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn famously said that families would be able to use the $1,000 saved from the Trump tax bill to renovate their kitchen or buy a new car.
Cabinet members like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin have come under fire in recent weeks for using taxpayer dollars to fund their lavish purchases. Pruitt installed a $43,000 sound-proof phone booth in his office while Shulkin had his staff alter an email to justify expenses from his wife’s trip to Europe totaling $4,300.