WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump's embattled health secretary was forced out of the US administration Friday amid a scandal over his use of costly private jets for government travel.
Tom Price was the latest top official to join in a stream of steady and embarrassing exits from a White House administration that has stumbled from one scandal or self-inflicted wound to another since Trump took power in January.
Price, a wealthy orthopaedic surgeon and former lawmaker from Georgia, is the most senior official to be forced out so far.
The scandal that ultimately doomed the 62-year-old has been brewing for days, placing Trump, whose campaign pledges included one to clean up Washington wastefulness and sleaze, in an increasingly difficult position.
The announcement of his resignation came less than an hour after Trump told reporters that Price had not offered to resign, but that his fate would be decided later Friday.
For days Price battled to keep a position he had held for less than eight months, after it emerged he had repeatedly used taxpayer funds to hire chartered jets.
In all, Price has flown on 26 separate trips this year on private aircraft, totaling some $400,000, according to Politico.
He tried to put a lid on the scandal by paying back what turned out to be a fraction of the costs.
The trips were for government business, Price's department said, but some of the flights were to destinations where the health chief owns property, or where he met relatives.
Since Wednesday calls for Price's resignation had grown louder and louder.
Price's penchant for traveling on luxury jets, Democratic Senator Patty Murray said Thursday, is "particularly shocking as you serve in an administration that routinely calls for draconian spending cuts and a reduction in government waste, and you yourself have repeatedly advocated for fiscal restraint."
Price had also been intimately involved in Trump's failed efforts to overturn Obama-era health care reforms. His forced departure can also be viewed as punishment for this failure.
With that effort now stalled in Congress, Price's replacement will have to decide whether to take measures to prop up the current system or let it fail.
Republicans say Obama's reforms are unworkable. Democrats and independent experts say Republican plans would see millions or tens of millions of people lose insurance.
'Tom, you're fired'
Trump had earlier indicated that Price's job was hanging by a thread.
"I don't like the optics," Trump said Friday. "I'm not happy, I can tell you, I'm not happy."
Trump described the former congressman as "a very fine person," adding that for some cabinet secretaries it was not a problem because they have their own planes.
It has been revealed that other cabinet secretaries -- including Treasury's Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt -- have also contracted private or military jets while in office.
Price's departure is now focusing more scrutiny on those officials' travels.
Since Trump became president in January, he has parted ways with his national security advisor, FBI director, chief of staff, press secretary, chief strategist and two communications directors.
But Price is the first cabinet secretary to exit the administration.
Back in July, as Republican lawmakers were working to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump joked about firing Price if the effort failed.
"Hopefully he's going to get the votes tomorrow to start on the path to kill this thing called Obamacare that's really hurting us," Trump said during a speech to Boy Scouts at an event attended by Price.
"He better get them, otherwise I'll say, 'Tom, you're fired,'" Trump joked to the crowd in West Virginia, using the famous line from his reality TV show "The Apprentice."
On Friday evening the phrase was dead serious for Price.