Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has been in some hot water lately, over reports that his department spent $31,000 on an ornate dining room table and chairs set. But from the sounds of things, he has at least one defender in a pretty high place ― according to a report on Friday, White House chief of staff John Kelly defended Carson buying the $31,000 table and chairs, on the grounds that it was a sound long-term investment.
According to Jonathan Swan of Axios, Kelly defended the merits of the high-priced purchase in an off-the-record conversation with reporters on Friday. Swan reports that Axios was not included in the call, but rather received the information through a trio of sources familiar with what was said, and is therefore not bound by the remarks having been off-the-record.
Here's how Kelly's defense of Carson went, according to the Axios report. It's important to note that this is a paraphrasing of what was said, not a direct quote.
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.
Of course, Carson's tenure at HUD will last nowhere near 80 to 100 years, nor will Carson himself. It's true that the table and chairs he picked out could continue being used by the department after his departure, however. Initially, the department denied that Catson and his wife Candy had any role in picking out the pricey dining set, but subsequently released emails suggested this was not the case.
As CNN reported earlier this week, an email from a department staffer suggested that the specific dining set had been selected by Carson himself. Specifically, the email reportedly referenced "printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out."
The cause for all the controversy is simple enough. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a fancy dining room set, with the expense coming out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a politically loaded story, and it comes on the heels of other allegations and instances of misuse of funds by Trump cabinet officials.
Last year, the former chief of the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, was fired by President Donald Trump amid reports he spent more than $1 million in taxpayer funds through the use of private and chartered jets.
Similarly, travel-related expenditures by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have also drawn headlines; Zinke called scrutiny of his travel and office expenses "misleading" this week.
It's been further reported that Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin improperly accepeted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London, and used government funds on his wife's airfare for a European vacation last year. Shulkin has since reimbursed the federal government for the expense.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has also drawn criticism for reportedly flying first class at taxpayer expense. He also, as ABC News detailed last year, reportedly had a $21,000 phone booth installed in his office, the stated reason being that he needed to make secure phone calls.
In short, these kinds of stories are nothing new for the Trump cabinet, although they're definitely starting to pile up. It remains to be seen whether Carson's apparent involvement in the purchase of the dining set will draw any further scrutiny, but no less than Kelly reportedly doesn't seem to think he did anything wrong.