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Trump's Travel Costs Add Up, Setting Him On Path To Outspend Obama

Apr 15, 2017
Originally published on April 15, 2017 5:19 pm

Ordinary folks can fly from the Washington, D.C., area to southeast Florida for $200-300 round-trip, if they book in advance. For the president, the trip is a little more costly.

Exactly how much is not currently public, though. The conservative group Judicial Watch, which has been tracking the cost of presidential travel for several years, estimates that President Trump's frequent visits to his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago probably cost the government around $1 million each.

Much of the expense stems from Air Force One 747, which costs around $140,000 per flying hour right now, says Judicial Watch's president, Tom Fitton. The trips typically incur other expenses as well, such as lodging and travel expenses for the Secret Service, and reimbursements for local police.

"It's a snapshot cost, in the sense that there are other costs obviously involved that we could get, but the government just doesn't want to give it to us or they keep secret for some reason," Fitton says.

The Government Accountability Office has agreed to look into the costs and security concerns raised by Democratic lawmakers about the Florida trips.

Trump has so far appeared to set a record for weekend travel, regularly shuttling back and forth between Washington and Florida.

"For someone who complained about President Obama traveling a lot, he's going to supersede President Obama's travel, all eight years [of it], within a year, which is just absolutely ridiculous," says Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who recently signed a letter to the Pentagon asking about the costs racked up by the president's use of Air Force One.

Political hay has long been made over personal travel by presidents. Republicans regularly excoriated Obama for the cost of his trips to Hawaii and Africa, for example.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming asked the Government Accountability Office to look into the cost of a three-day, three-legged trip Obama took from Washington to Chicago and then onto Palm Beach in February 2013. The report calculated the cost of the trip at around $3.6 million.

In fact, Judicial Watch began monitoring travel costs during the Obama administration.

"He made a big show of taking his wife up to New York on a date night. And I thought to myself, 'Well, that sounds like a pretty darned expensive date night,' knowing what it costs to move a president around," Fitton says. Because the Obamas and their entourage flew on small planes, the cost of that trip was relatively low. Press reports put it at around $25,000.

The Obama administration was reluctant to answer questions about travel costs, forcing Judicial Watch to file Freedom of Information requests to get an answer (Secret Service documents show $11,648.17 in security expenses for that trip). So far, the Trump White House hasn't been much more transparent, Fitton says.

"There has to be an awareness that it costs money to go down there, and they should justify the cost or explain to the American people why it's necessary," he says.

A million dollars for a weekend trip to Florida is actually chump change for the Pentagon, with its annual budget of $600 billion, but Gallego says that isn't really the point.

"We've had to stop hiring child care specialists in child care day centers on Army bases because the president has done a hiring freeze," he says. "If the president wants to ask the country to sacrifice and other government agencies to sacrifice, then he should be doing the same."

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The president is again spending the weekend at his Palm Beach Resort, Mar-a-Lago. The cost of moving a president and presidential staff around each year easily runs into the millions of dollars. And this president is on track to run up a bigger bill than any of his predecessors. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Ordinary mortals can fly from Washington to Florida for $200 or $300 if they book in advance. For the president, it costs a little more than that. How much more is something the conservative group Judicial Watch has been keeping track of for years. A few years ago, the group's president, Tom Fitton, began to wonder how much one of President Obama's trips cost.

TOM FITTON: He made a big show of taking his wife up to New York on a date night. And I thought to myself, well, that sounds like a pretty darn expensive date night knowing what it costs to move a president around.

ZARROLI: The Obamas took a small plane, so press reports said the cost of the trip was relatively low, around $25,000. Since then, Judicial Watch has been filing Freedom of Information requests to nail down the cost of presidential travel. Fitton calculates that flying on the Air Force One 747 costs about $140,000 per flying hour. He says when Secret Service costs are included, a weekend in Palm Beach sets the government back about $1 million.

FITTON: It's a snapshot cost in the sense that there are other costs, obviously, involved that we could get, but the government just doesn't want to give it to us or they keep secret for good reason.

ZARROLI: Other estimates are higher. The Government Accountability Office did a report a few years ago putting the cost of one of Obama's 2013 trips at more than $3.5 million. But that was a three-legged journey involving a lot more flight time. Whatever the cost, it seems likely that President Trump's travel expenses will easily dwarf those of his predecessor. Trump regularly travels from Washington to his properties in New York, New Jersey and especially Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After another tough week, the president is headed for his happy place - Palm Beach.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He has been there the past three weekends in a row.

ZARROLI: Presidential travel regularly becomes fodder for political attacks. Republicans complained about Obama's trips to Hawaii and Africa, and now it's Democrats' turn. Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona was 1 of 4 members of Congress who recently wrote to the Pentagon about the cost of Trump's weekend trips.

RUBEN GALLEGO: He's going to supersede President Obama's travel all eight years within a year, which is just absolutely ridiculous.

ZARROLI: A million dollars for a weekend trip isn't all that much money compared to the annual Pentagon budget, which is nearly $600 billion. But Gallego says that's not the point.

GALLEGO: We've had to stop hiring child care specialists in child care day centers on Army bases because the president has done a hiring freeze. If the president wants to ask the country to sacrifice and the other government entities (ph) to sacrifice, then he should be doing the same.

ZARROLI: Gallego says he signed the letter because Americans deserve to know how much the president's trips are costing them. So far, at least, he hasn't received a reply. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.