Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt spent a total of $43,000 on a custom soundproof phone booth in his office, according to a report from the Washington Post.
The phone booth was installed last fall after Pruitt insisted that it was “necessary for me to be able to do my job.” It’s unclear why Pruitt’s job demanded such an elaborate and expensive setup; as the Post notes, no previous EPA administrator had a need for a similar phone booth. But these large and questionable expenditures seem to be a trend of sorts for members of the Trump Cabinet, at least for those who are able to survive the whims and tweets of the president.
Pruitt himself is no stranger to “necessary” comforts paid for with public money. In February, it was reported that he spent excessive amounts on first-class plane tickets and luxury hotels for EPA-related travel, expenditures that vastly exceeded his predecessors. As with his phone booth, the EPA administrator argued that his spending was a necessity, a decision made out of concerns for his safety. “We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader in February. “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the [security] detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat,” he added.
Shortly after Pruitt conflated luxury travel with safety, the EPA announced that he would consider flying coach. The announcement was smug and performative, but it was in keeping with the high cost of comfort that has become a bit of a trademark for Cabinet members. Tom Price supposedly lost his job over taxpayer-funded trips on private planes, but similar spending by Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke seems somehow to be more acceptable to the Trump administration. When questioned about his affection for private jets on Tuesday, Zinke told a Senate committee that he had never taken a private jet, only chartered flights and prop planes which are not private jets, according to Zinke, because they do not have jet engines. He called the suggestion of private jets and luxury expenses “insults and innuendos.” When asked, during the same committee meeting, about the $139,000 spent on doors for his private office, Zinke said, “I resent the fact of the doors.” If the existence of the doors proved resentful to Zinke, then their price apparently did not.
Beyond doors, first-class tickets, luxury hotels, and private planes that are clearly not private jets, the Trump Cabinet also has a penchant for pricey furniture. In addition to Pruitt’s phone booth, the Post reports that “invoices released by the EPA showed that Pruitt paid $2,075 to refinish a desk that had been stored in a government warehouse, as well as $2,963 for a new ‘captain’s desk.’” According to an EPA memo in the invoices, “officials had found lower-cost standing desks for Pruitt, but those were made overseas and did not meet federal requirements that government leaders buy products made in the United States.”
The news of Pruitt’s expensive captain’s desk comes on the heels of the revelation that HUD Secretary Ben Carson ordered a “Newport dining table with a mahogany finish along with upholstered chairs” for a mere $31,561. According to a report, again from the Washington Post, Carson began redecorating his office before he had taken office and shortly after Trump’s inauguration. The redecoration, documents reveal, was led by Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, who seems to have chosen key pieces for her husband’s redecorated office, including the Newport dining table.
More revealing, perhaps, is the report that HUD’s former chief administrative officer, Helen Foster, alleges that she was demoted “in part because she warned other officials that the planned refurbishment would require congressional notification because it would exceed $5,000.” Nothing, apparently, would stand between the Carsons and a mahogany finish, including the objections of a minor bureaucrat.
If there are conclusions to be drawn from the spending habits of the still-standing members of Trump’s Cabinet, then they’re simple enough: unchecked spending, the deep disconnect between the wealthy and the average person, their blatant materiality as they dismantle protections for the poor, or even the haughty disregard for government norms. But there’s something truly ironic about these men surrounding themselves with luxury goods and spending on comforts—acquiring seemingly useless if not wildly expensive material objects—only to perhaps wake one morning and find themselves fired via tweet.
It’s a weirdly retrograde narrative, a throwback to courtiers serving unstable kings, who collected and acquired to demonstrate a kind of permanence. Such staying power was always fictional, as it is now, as whims of ego can never be assuaged. The emperor might not have any clothes, but his secretaries are, for their time in his good graces, rich in phone booths, doors, and mahogany dining sets.