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

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 largely staffed 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.

U.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 and the [$300] cost for shipping the first desk back to the seller was completely covered by Ambassador Lighthizer using personal funds.” 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.”