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$2.3 million on travel in 8 months: Trump Navy secretary flew around the world, despite COVID-19

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/10/2021 Tom Vanden Brook, Janet Loehrke and Ramon Padilla, USA TODAY
diagram: Trump's Navy Sec. Braithwaite spent nearly $3 million on travel in 8-month term © USA TODAY Trump's Navy Sec. Braithwaite spent nearly $3 million on travel in 8-month term

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the regional locations of Wake Island and Hawaii. The islands are in the North Pacific.

WASHINGTON – Former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite traversed the globe in his brief tenure under the Trump administration, spending more than $2.3 million on air travel, according to figures and documents obtained by USA TODAY.

Braithwaite spent $232,000 the week before President Joe Biden's inauguration to fly to Wake Island, a tiny Pacific atoll, where, according to Navy spokesman Capt. Jereal Dorsey, no sailors or Marines are stationed. The executive director of the government watchdog Project On Government Oversight called the trip "an expensive abuse of power." 

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Braithwaite was Navy secretary, the service's most senior civilian, from May 29 until Biden took office on Jan. 21. During that time, Braithwaite embarked on 22 trips to foreign and domestic destinations – more than any other senior Pentagon civilian – even as the COVID-19 pandemic trimmed the wings of other senior officials, according to two Defense Department officials.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Kenneth Braithwaite, served as 77th secretary of the Navy from May 29, 2020 to January 20, 2021. © Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP Kenneth Braithwaite, served as 77th secretary of the Navy from May 29, 2020 to January 20, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic, according to the two Defense officials who were not authorized to comment publicly, cut back foreign travel for most senior officials. Some countries limited travel for visiting delegations, making trips less useful, one official said. Domestic travel was also limited, the other official said, to prevent exposure and spread of the virus among troops and officials.

Braithwaite's international travels included Norway, Italy, Greece, Japan and India. His domestic trips included more than $24,000 to attend the Army-Navy football game with his family and more than one visit to Hawaii. 

Braithwaite trips from June 2020 to January 2121

Over the same period, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his successor, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, took 15 trips. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy took 17 trips, and Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett recorded 19 trips. McCarthy and Barrett had led their services since 2019. McCarthy's trips cost roughly $900,000 and his family did not accompany him on any trips, said spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Audricia Harris. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took four trips during Braithwaite's tenure.

Former President Donald Trump nominated Braithwaite for Navy secretary after acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned. Modly came under criticism from Congress for his $243,000 flight to Guam where he stayed briefly to address the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that made national headlines. Modly told USA TODAY Thursday that he made the urgent flight to the Roosevelt because he learned Capt. Brett Crozier had released sensitive information. 

In a statement, Braithwaite said his trips were necessary to bolster the Navy, citing recent crises it had endured, including, presumably the troubles surrounding the Roosevelt. 

"I am extremely proud of the record of accomplishments of Our Sailors and Marines during my tenure as Secretary, especially following such a tumultuous chapter in the Navy’s recent history of crisis following crisis as compared to our other services," Braithwaite wrote in an email. "I submit it's impossible to lead men and women deployed around the world from behind a desk in Washington." 

Wake Island: 'Where America's Day Really Begins'

Among Braithwaite's travels, his trip to Hawaii and Wake Island stands out. The Air Force, not the Navy, has administrative control of the Wake Atoll, a string of islands generally not accessible to civilians. Navy F-18 pilots use the strip and ranges nearby for training. It serves chiefly as a refueling stop and emergency landing strip in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from Hawaii. Wake, according to a senior Defense Department official, is not a strategic base like Guam, where the Navy and Air Force have extensive facilities.

a plane flying in the air with smoke coming out of it: Two F-22 Raptors fly over Wake Island as part of a rapid deployment June 21, 2013. © U.S. Air Force Handout photo by Master Sgt. Connie Reed Two F-22 Raptors fly over Wake Island as part of a rapid deployment June 21, 2013.

While on Wake Island, Braithwaite recorded his farewell message to the Navy and Marine Corps. He appeared in a flight jacket with a gravelly beach, scrubby brush and water in the background. Braithwaite recounted the bravery of sailors and Marines who defended the island. Wake has historical significance, coming under attack by the Japanese in December 1941 just before Pearl Harbor sparked America's entry into World War II. 

"The focus of the end of an administration should be the peaceful transfer of power and how to best help the next administration to lead the Navy," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "Given that Wake Island has no strategic significance, it looks like this trip was an expensive abuse of his power."

Braithwaite traveled in January and sought and received a waiver from a 2018 Pentagon policy for ethical use of military aircraft that cracked down on the use of multiple crews and planes in order to "be peerless stewards of taxpayers' dollars," according to a memo outlining the policy.

Waivers have been rarely issued since the policy went into effect. They have been granted for commanders traveling to war zones. Modly had filed a request for a waiver after his trip to Guam and it was approved retroactively. The Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, has not sought a waiver from the policy in his 20 months as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to his spokesman, Cmdr. Nate Christensen.

$8K an hour

Braithwaite flew aboard a C-37B, a Gulfstream 550 business jet modified for military use. It has a crew of four and costs $8,007 per hour to operate. He took several short trips, including three to Norfolk, Virginia, home to a sprawling Navy presence. In all, Braithwaite's trips cost about $2.4 million, according to Dorsey.

In comparison, the Air Force estimates that Barrett's trips, aboard a C-37 and C-40, based on a Boeing 737, cost $1.6 million, according to Lt. Col. Justin Brockhoff, an Air Force spokesman. 

Braithwaite's trip to Wake Island took place from Jan. 11 to Jan. 14, taking off from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington and arriving in Hawaii. From there, he boarded a separate plane with a new crew for the flight to Wake Island. Braithwaite's waiver request notes that the use of two planes and two crews for his trip would ensure he would return for a full day of work on Jan. 15 where he was needed to help with the transition to the Biden administration. He cites a minimal increase in cost because the extra crew and plane were based in Hawaii and did not have a previously scheduled mission.

His wide travels, Braithwaite said, were necessary to put the Navy back on course.

"I believe that as a result of meeting and working with those brave Americans serving in Wake, in Japan, in Bahrain and all the far corners of the world, I left the Navy and the Marine Corps better positioned to respond to our nation's defense today and tomorrow," Braithwaite wrote.

Braithwaite was previously ambassador to Norway. A Naval Academy graduate, he served as a pilot in the Pacific tracking submarines and later moved to public affairs. He left active duty in 1993 and joined the Navy Reserve from which he retired as vice chief of information.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: $2.3 million on travel in 8 months: Trump Navy secretary flew around the world, despite COVID-19

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