By Drew Harwell and Beth Reinhard, The Washington Post, August 24, 2017
Louise Linton, wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, drew accusations of elitism this week for an Instagram glamour shot of her stepping off a government jet — and for her mockery of an online critic as “adorably out of touch.”
But a watchdog group and a lawmaker, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), seized on a different issue: Did the millionaire couple fly to Louisville on Monday, on a taxpayer-funded plane, just to see the solar eclipse? Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) suggested as much in seeking records of the trip, saying it “seems to have been planned around the solar eclipse.”
It turns out that Mnuchin did view the eclipse while he was in Kentucky: Just outside the path of totality, from the lawn of the nation’s fabled Fort Knox, home to nearly $200 billion in American gold, according to an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
A post on McConnell’s official Facebook page, attributed to the senator, said Thursday that he and Mnuchin viewed the eclipse from the roof. “The U.S. Department of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and I in front of the main door to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox before we viewed the #solareclipse from the rooftop today,” said the posting, which featured an image of the two men, McConnell holding eclipse glasses.
After media reports about the Facebook post, including in this story, the Treasury Department said in a statement that the viewing was from the lawn.
“The Mint staff had originally suggested that the delegation watch the eclipse from the roof but the Secretary specifically canceled that part of the tour. They watched it briefly from outside before they entered [before the actual time of full eclipse],” the statement said.
McConnell’s office has revised its Facebook page to remove the reference to the rooftop and declined to say how the error was made.
Treasury officials said Thursday that the trip was planned explicitly around “official government travel,” rejecting the idea that the Fort Knox visit and the appearance at a luncheon for the local chamber of commerce were mere cover. They said the luncheon appearance had been planned for early August but was delayed when McConnell postponed the Senate’s recess, an account confirmed by a spokeswoman for the Louisville chamber, Alison Brotzge-Elder.
The trip was pushed into the spotlight after Linton, a Scottish actress who married Mnuchin this summer, posted the photo of herself wearing designer fashions, which she individually identified by brand, as she stepped off the government plane.
When an Oregon woman criticized the trip, Linton fired back that she was “pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours.”
Linton apologized Tuesday and has since closed her Instagram to public view.
Told Thursday that the luncheon had originally been scheduled for another date, CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz said, “We’re not sure about the motive for the trip, but we filed the [Freedom of Information Act request] to get more information about it.”
Wyden wrote to the Treasury’s general counsel Thursday citing the eclipse and seeking a “detailed explanation” of the travel and justification for use of the government aircraft.
Defense Department policy calls government air transportation “a premium mode of travel involving high costs and limited resources” and urges federal employees to make “every effort . . . to minimize travel cost.”
In many cases, the agencies reimburse the military for travel. A government jet like that flown for Mnuchin and Linton has a reimbursable rate of up to $10,000 an hour, federal documents show.
A Treasury representative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mnuchin “is reimbursing the government for Mrs. Linton’s travel, as is long-standing policy regarding civilians on military aircraft.” The representative declined to say who approved the use of a government plane. A McConnell aide said the senator was not on the plane.
Mnuchin and McConnell were keynote speakers at the Greater Louisville Inc. luncheon at the Olmsted, a historic widows’ and orphans’ home that has been converted into an event venue, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The partial eclipse in Louisville began at 12:59 p.m. and ended at 3:51 p.m.
McConnell has attended such luncheons in the past, where he has chatted about policy and met business leaders in his home state. “Sometimes the senator does a press gaggle after the event,” Brotzge-Elder said. “This time, they went right on out.”
The next stop, at Fort Knox, marked a rare visit to the gold vault, which has been closed to outsiders for decades. McConnell told journalists that day that Mnuchin invited him along for the visit, saying, “It just kind of came up as a result of a casual conversation.”
Mnuchin thanked the U.S. Mint staff on Twitter after the visit, which he said was the first for a treasury secretary since 1948. “Glad gold is safe!” he tweeted.