According to information obtained by CNN, the White House held private meetings with four Cabinet-level officials last month to scold them for embarrassing stories about questionable ethical behavior within their respective agencies.
Internal watchdogs have launched at least nine audits, reviews or investigations across several Cabinet agencies. Stories about first-class travel, expensive office furniture, and internal strife have become very common.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have all met with officials from the White House counsel’s office and the Cabinet liaison.
Sources have confirmed that the meetings were held at the request of the chief of staff John Kelly. They were intended to provide “a clear message that optics matter.”
The White House gave the agencies a set of guidelines in a document titled “creating a culture of compliance,” according to portions of the document obtained by CNN.
The following pieces of advice were highlighted:
• “You are the best guardian of your reputation. Your recordkeeping practices must be designed with a purpose to prove innocence at the complaint phase or with the press.”
• “Even if legal, does not mean you should do it — always consider optics.”
• “Optics questions: Does the event or travel further the President’s priorities, your department or agency’s mission; or, does it appear recreational or entertainment in nature.”
• “Remember, an ethics opinion matters only if the ethics officer received all of the information.”
The White House declined to comment.
During the meetings, the White House officials asked agencies to flag potentia problems, including ongoing investigations or audits.
Soon after the session with Zinke, however, CNN published a report with several examples that ethics watchdogs say raise questions about whether Zinke is misusing his travel privileges. Zinke, although, received approval from the department’s lawyer and ethics officer.
Familiar sources told CNN that the White House was disappointed after meeting with Zinke. His agency failed to mention the story, of which Interior was aware and quoted a department spokesperson on the record.
When asked about the White House’s unhappiness, an Interior spokesperson, who declined to be named, said, “this is such a nothing-burger.”
The spokesperson continued, “Cabinet secretaries and staff meet with the White House constantly about a number of issues to include advancing policy priorities and strategy.”
In his meeting, VA Secretary Shulkin was told he could no longer discuss purging agency employees after telling Politico that he had permission from the White House to remove insubordinates. He was also advised that stories about “palace intrigue” were unacceptable, a source familiar said.
When questioned on the meeting, the VA public affairs office released the following statement:
“President Trump tasked Secretary Shulkin with reforming the VA so it could better serve the men and women who sacrificed to protect our country. Many reforms have already been enacted, many more are still needed, but nothing will distract the President, the Secretary and the Department from finding the best ways to provide care and benefits to our country’s heroes.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox denied CNN’s characterization of Pruitt’s White House meeting.
Wilcox said, “This is entirely untrue. Administrator Pruitt has regular meetings with a number of officials at the White House. Throughout those meetings, the White House has offered continued support of EPA, to help the Agency succeed in furthering the President’s environmental agenda.”
HUD did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Carson canceled a $31,000 dining room furniture purchase after a whistleblower said she was demoted after refusing to break the law and overspend for redecorating Carson’s office.
The agency has since denied those allegations. HUD’s inspector general is also looking into the role Carson’s family has played in department business.
It is unclear what answers the agencies provided when asked to spot potential problems, but there are open reviews and inquiries across several agencies.
Following reports of his many flights to his home state Oklahoma, EPA’s internal watchdog is investigating the frequency, cost, and extent of Pruitt’s travel. Several reports claim Pruitt used taxpayer funds on first-class flights and luxury hotels that exceeded his predecessors. EPA has cited security concerns as the reason Pruitt flies first class.
Zinke’s travel is also under investigation by both the Office of Special Counsel and the Interior Department’s inspector general.
The VA’s inspector general recently released a report about Shulkin’s July 2017 trip to Europe. The report accused Shulkin of misusing taxpayer funds and inappropriately accepting Wimbledon tickets. It went on to say that his then-chief of staff wrote an email to justify the department paying for his wife’s airfare to accompany him. Shulkin has said he intends to comply with all the IG recommendations, even though he disagreed with them.
Multiple sources have also told CNN that the secretary had been locked in battle with a group of Trump administration officials, who Shulkin says have been working to push him out of the department.
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