Editor’s Note: The New York Times has amended a clarification to their earlier story, stating that their “article and headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question.” They added: “While Nikki R. Haley is the current ambassador to the United Nations, the decision on leasing the ambassador’s residence and purchasing the curtains was made during the Obama administration, according to current and former officials.”
The State Department hasn’t been in great shape since President Trump took office. Last year, then-Secretary Rex Tillerson imposed a hiring freeze and moved to slash the department’s budget. Key positions were left unfilled. There were issues with internal communication. The Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal outlined a need to axe the department’s spending by 29 percent, the most of any government agency, in order to pay for defense spending increases. The general neglect for the department tasked with handling the nation’s foreign affairs hasn’t had much impact on the comfort of its senior officials, though, particularly their ability to easily access sweeping view of the New York City skyline. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the State Department spent $52,701 on a mechanized curtain rig for for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s Manhattan residence.
Haley is the first U.N. ambassador to live in a new residence on First Avenue that the department leased for $58,000 a month after a questionable Chinese company bought the Waldorf Astoria, which had housed previous U.N. ambassadors. The curtain system was installed between March and August of last year, just as Tillerson was cracking down on the department’s expenditures. “How can you, on the one hand, tell diplomats that basic needs cannot be met and, on the other hand, spend more than $50,000 on a customized curtain system for the ambassador to the U.N.?” Obama White House official Brett Bruen wondered to the Times.
Haley’s $52,000 curtain rig is only the latest in a bizarre string of exorbitant home and office decor purchases made by Trump administration officials. The most high-profile serial spender was, of course, Scott Pruitt, the former Environmental Protection Agency chief who was forced to resign in July amidst a host of ethics scandals. Though Pruitt spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on everything from first-class airfare, to custom pens, to “tactical pants,” his harbored a weakness for office furnishings. He spent nearly $10,000 on paintings and a desk refurbishment. He spent $43,000 to have a soundproof phone booth installed. His head of security wanted to spend $70,000 on two desks, one of them bulletproof. Pruitt wound up opting for a slightly more modest writing surface that EPA employees reportedly compared to the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
The disgraced EPA chief wasn’t the only Trump appointee with expensive tastes. In February, Department of Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson spent $31,000 of the agency’s money on a lavish dining room set for his office. As was the case with the State Department when Haley’s curtain system was installed last year, HUD was planning on cutting programs for the homeless, elderly and poor as Carson’s team was dropping racks of cash on high-end furniture. Carson himself said he did not know about the purchase, but once he found out about it he deemed it appropriate. “In general, the secretary does want to be as fiscally prudent as possible with the taxpayers’ money,” a HUD spokesman said at the time. But there was more than just the desk. A former staffer claims she was demoted when she refused to “find money” to purchase other extravagant office furniture for Carson, telling the Guardian that someone acting on behalf of Carson’s wife told her that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair.”
In March, it was reported that the Department of the Interior spent over $139,000 on what was labeled simply as “Secretary’s Door.” The cost was later revealed to cover three sets of double doors in Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office. Like Carson, Zinke claimed to have had no knowledge of the purchase. “The secretary was not aware of this contract but agrees that this is a lot of money for demo, install, materials and labor,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement. “Between regulations that require historic preservation and outdated government procurement rules, the costs for everything from pencils to printing to doors is astronomical. This is a perfect example of why the secretary believes we need to reform procurement processes.”
Not everyone believed Zinke didn’t know about the new doors. “I spent six years in senior government positions & you can be damn straight that I would’ve known if somebody was spending $139,000 on doors for my office,” tweeted Norm Eisen, who served as the White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform under President Obama. “If I didn’t know about it I would’ve deserved to be fired for that!”
Regardless of if he knew about the purchase, Zinke could have a point about government procurement rules, and the department’s extravagant spending predates his tenure as secretary. As the Associated Press points out, $220,000 was spent on a 2007 renovation of the secretary’s personal bathroom, including a sub-zero refrigerator and custom cabinets.
The Times report on Haley’s new curtains notes that, like Carson and Zinke, she did not know about the purchase. The expenditure was even approved under the Obama administration, although one would think it might have been put on hold considering the cuts Tillerson was making to the State Department at the time. Nevertheless, the curtain system was installed, and Haley is now able to flood her $58,000-a-month residence with natural light by simply toggling a switch. “All she’s got is a part-time maid,” Patrick Kennedy, a State Department official under President Obama, explained to the Times. “The ability to open and close the curtains quickly is important.”