Apr 23, 2018, 6:15 AM ET

US trade rep racked up bill as he flip-flopped on purchase of pricey office desk

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President Donald Trump’s trade representative racked up a hefty bill on the purchase and subsequent return of a new desk for his office, emails reviewed by ABC News show.

According to emails and receipts obtained by a government watchdog group, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s office replaced his original desk, returned the replacement and then bought a new one -- racking up nearly $4,000 on the purchases and associated shipping costs.

American Oversight, a watchdog group founded by former Barack Obama administration officials that has been pushing for records on multiple appointed official across several government agencies, obtained dozens of emails over a five-week period between between June 2017 and July 2017 showing Lighthizer and his staffers discussing furniture options. Much of the correspondence was conducted on Lighthizer’s personal email account.

"There's a troubling pattern of Trump appointees spending lavishly on themselves and wasting time and taxpayer money on things like luxury furniture,” American Oversight’s executive director, Austin Evers, told ABC News.

Earlier this week, the New York Post and CNBC reported that Lightizer’s office spent nearly $1 million to furnish two office buildings near the White House. Lighthizer’s office blamed the expenses on the previous administration.

“The furniture purchases are the culmination of a longtime, planned project that began under the Obama Administration to replace two-decade-old furniture,” Lighthizer’s office said in a statement to the New York Post.

After months of delays, Lighthizer was confirmed by the Senate in May 2017, and it wasn’t long before he apparently decided that he didn’t like the desk that came with his office.

Emails show that after weeks of debate, Lighthizer purchased an executive flame mahogany desk with a leather top on July 11 for $2,700 plus $575 in shipping fees after directing his staff to expedite shipping of the desk for an additional cost.

PHOTO: An oval-shaped flame mahogany desk, purchased by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in July of 2017. Lighthizer returned the desk. Photo obtained by watchdog group American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act requestU.S. Office of the Trade Representative
An oval-shaped flame mahogany desk, purchased by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in July of 2017. Lighthizer returned the desk. Photo obtained by watchdog group American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act request

Upon arrival, Lighthizer was “thrilled” with his new desk, an aide wrote in an email. That thrill, however, appeared to be short lived.

“The part where ones [sic] legs go under the center drawer is not finished and would ruin suit pants. Horrible,” Lighthizer wrote from his personal email account the next day. The desk “is not functional. Drawers are too hard to open close [sic].”

Lighthizer appeared eager to replace the replacement.

“He called me this morning,” an aide wrote shortly thereafter. “He wants to return the desk.”

The search began anew. Aides quickly identified a new desk – a $2,900 Chippendale mahogany desk with a modesty panel -- from the same New Jersey vendor. Lighthizer reviewed and approved the purchase, again from his personal account, this time with a caveat: “If it is a real desk made in England with drawers that work and underside that is finished.”

Aides embarked on negotiating new shipping fees, and the new desk arrived on July 27.

All told, after purchasing and expediting the shipping of the first desk, returning it, and then purchasing and shipping the second desk, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative had spent nearly $4,000 on the desk alone, even though the Government Accountability Office prohibits cabinet secretaries from spending more than $5,000 on all office redecorations without requesting permission from Congress.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, signs a directive to impose tariffs on imported washing machines in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. Jan. 23, 2018.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, signs a directive to impose tariffs on imported washing machines in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C. Jan. 23, 2018.

In a statement to ABC News, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said "the cost of the returned desk was fully refunded." On Monday, Lighthizer's office told ABC News that Lighthizer covered the initial $575 cost of shipping the first desk. Emails between aides indicate the expedited shipping cost for the first desk was not refunded.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not respond to other questions regarding its decision to replace the desks or whether they exceeded the $5,000 spending limit.

An additional $858 spent to appoint the office with the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative seal and another $830 for the unrelated installation of two paintings in his office would appear to put Lighthizer over the limit, but it is not clear if Congress was notified.

“In the Trump administration, the tone is set at the top," a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government accountability and ethics watchdog, told ABC News. "From Scott Pruitt to Ben Carson, department heads in this administration have shown their affinity for spending lavishly on their work spaces. Cabinet secretaries with these excessive tastes have not been held to account.”

American Oversight's executive director Evers added that Lighthizer’s use of personal email for official government correspondence “raises real questions” about his conduct.

"While an antique desk order might not seem like a big deal, if Robert Lighthizer is using personal email for work matters, it raises real questions about whether he is conducting other government business on his private email accounts."

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  • John Payton

    Its truly amazing the hipocracy of people and to believe that politicians do not do this all of the time? He did not break any law, it's clear that its below the maximum limit. This kind of attention is great if it's used on everyone. Use the same weights and measures against Republicans and Democrats. If it's illegal, get punished. Drugs, violent crimes, fraud, whatever!

  • Ron I.

    Only the best for Trump appointee's!

  • Les Sd

    I have learned that people who scream the loudest about someone else's errors have in fact the same errors themselves and their loudness is a way to cover up their own faults.

  • Tyler U

    I actually appreciate that last part of the article. I got to the part where he sent the email about the unfinished cabinet, and was like, "He used his private email to conduct business? Isn't that a problem on top of the spending?" Kept reading and was satisfied with that last short paragraph answering my question.

    This administration is a joke. They chastised Hillary Clinton, and blew how much of our money on repeat investigations over the issue, but Trump's admin is doing the same thing, while they run their mouths about Hillary. And while they're cutting beneficial programs for the taxpayers, and cutting taxes for the rich, they're out spending our money on personal luxuries. Keep in mind they chastised Obama for ordering Dijon mustard on a burger at 5 guys.

    If there's one thing we know Republicans are good at, it's blowing money that doesn't belong to them. It's like they truly believe taxpayer money exists specifically for them.

  • Aspasia Pericles

    What does "goniff mean? Look it up.
    Somebody please calculate how many poor children could receive a decent education for the cost of this AND other top-level ego-driven luxury purchases
    by Trump's posterior osculators. Not to mention you-know-who's arrogant, shameless personal first class and military flights. .

  • Life's a River

    Right now, the stock market is right where it was in early January. If the tariffs kick in, there will be a recession. When was the last recession? Oh yeah, the last Republican president's second term. But Trump and his cabinet appointees are living the high life, and profiting handsomely from it. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal. (George Orwell's Animal Farm) Just like in the classic novel, the pigs are running the farm.

  • Tegbessou Géléhéso

    What a butt head.... liar liar pants on fire...

  • Ronald Bandor

    Trump continues his trend of appointing people who know the least possible about the specific job they are assigned to. Odd.

  • kritikosman

    Crooked crooks rolling like crooks roll. #hard

  • Bud Simpson

    Lighthizer’s office blamed the expenses on the previous administration.

    “The furniture purchases are the culmination of a longtime, planned project that began under the Obama Administration to replace two-decade-old furniture,” Lighthizer’s office said in a statement to the New York Post.

    This administration has no soul. Bone Spur undoes everything he can that has Obama's name on it...but now, that it's convenient, they blame the easiest thing they could have cancelled on Obama. What a pack of lying cowards.

  • catmom

    Blaming this on the previous administration, are you kidding me? Wow!!!!

  • ROBOTIX JONES

    The swamp is getting worse by the day. Didn't he claim that he'd "drain the swamp" or something? I swore I heard that.....surely he didn't lie again?

  • Forward forward

    But...but...but...Obama!!

  • gregormendel

    The "US" trade rep demanded a desk made in England? Lolol!!!!

  • Lavendar62

    Continuation of Trump and his minions giving America the middle finger.

  • Guomino

    The extremely important Desk Scandal!

    No one did anything when the Clintons used Pay to Play to create personal wealth for themselves so I'm going to guess no one will do anything about this earth-shattering Desk Scandal.

    LOL

  • AlexaGuyer

    There is an alarming pattern of Trump and his regime spending taxpayer money with abandon with no remorse whatsoever. Just as a test, I checked out $3,700 desks on Amazon. What I found was that the majority ships for free and expedited shipping is not even an option. However, most rates for expedited shipping on other items usually runs double to triple the cost of regular shipping, so the expedited shipping on the initial desk probably cost, at the minimum, around $1,200.00. I don't believe for one minute that this rep paid for the shipping out of his own pocket, I'd like to see the proof.

  • novamcln

    The new battle cry of the Republican sycophant base turns out to be, "What's 4 grand on a desk when the GOP just added 4 trillion to the national debt?"

  • ogrot

    If he wanted an antique I'm sure they have plenty of old desks in storage.

  • Jack25

    How much corruption is acceptable to you Trump Chumps?

  • Treblig56

    Much ado about nothing... As much as I decry ScottPruitt's 43K soundproof phone booth and the excessive travel expenses of many Trump appointees, I personally do not care if a 4K desk is bought, if it is to last for many years. The press and the administration should focus on how the 686 billion $ of the defense department budget are spent, as there is an incredible waste of money designed to enrich defense contractors - who happen to be big political donors - on the back of the US taxpayer.

  • P-dizzle

    Of course he rejected American made furniture.

  • My two cents

    Whether it's a desk, a dining room set, first class flights across the county....the Trump Cabinet is just spending like a bunch of drunken sailors. The GOP silence is deafening.

  • Your Worst Nightmare

    Why are we making such big deal out of this. We see it every day.

    Plus, remember Trump's tax cuts are going to pay for everything because the economy is going to grow and grow and grow so there will be money for all. /s

  • Francois

    That's how it works when it's not your money.

    Spend, spend, spend.

  • Kobrakai7272

    This is annoying of course, but I hesitate to make it a "Trump thing" without knowing what appointees from previous administrations spent on such things. Regardless, spending thousands on mahogany desk is kind of the opposite of "draining the swamp", no?

  • Your Worst Nightmare

    At least Trump and his criminal cohorts are consistent.

    So now they're blaming Obama for their order of an expensive desk? Wow. He made them buy it? I guess he didn't realize how much control he still had.

    A new desk may have been needed, but not one so expensive but hey, Trump only hires multi-millionaires who have gotten rich by doing exactly this. Spending other people's money. And the Trumpers cheer.