Assessing the Known and Unknown Costs of President Trump’s First International Trip

NTUF will leave it to the others to debate the diplomatic or political value of President Trump’s first international trip, but there are significant, yet often unreported costs for taxpayers anytime the Chief Executive departs from Washington, DC. In addition to security and transportation costs, expenses will mount depending on the length of the trip, the number of federal workers involved, as well as lodging and equipment rentals, as the office of the President essentially travels wherever he goes.

For some trips, a portion of the costs will be paid for by a non-governmental organization. Whenever a President travels domestically to participate in a political event, either the campaign or political committee that is the sponsor of the activity must reimburse the government for a portion of the transportation costs, based on the cost to charter a comparable aircraft to accommodate those participating on the trip. It is common for domestic trips to include a mix of official duties related to the office of the President and unofficial political activities. In those cases, there is a reimbursement formula based on the percentage of the trip devoted to unofficial activities. The amount reimbursed to taxpayers will eventually be included in the quarterly filings political organizations are required to make to the Federal Election Commission. (For more information, see our post from November 2016, The Costs When Presidents Travel for Campaign Activities.)

Taxpayers pick up the tab for the security costs involved in travel. In October of 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that a trip President Obama took over four days in 2013 to Chicago, Illinois and Palm Beach, Florida incurred a $2.8 million cost to the Department of Defense and $767 thousand to the Department of Homeland Security. There has been extensive coverage regarding the potential security costs for protecting Trump Tower in New York City and also for President Trump’s frequent weekend flights to his golf clubs in Florida and New Jersey. While it is still unclear what arrangements have been made, to the extent that any trips include duties or visits unrelated to the President’s official duties, a portion of the travel costs will be reimbursed.

This is not the case when the president travels overseas, and of course the security, logistics, and related costs borne by taxpayers are much higher. Unfortunately, unless the GAO is asked to compile a report on the total expenditures, which would take a while to complete, they will remain largely hidden from taxpayers.     

The most transparent cost associated with presidential travel are the expenses to operate Air Force One, the military version of a Boeing 747 airliner. According to the results of a Freedom of Information Act request made by Judicial Watch, the FY 2017 cost per flight hour for Air Force One is  $142,380, which includes “fuel, flight consumables, aircraft overhaul, and engine overhaul.” Based on the fight and departure times reported in the daily itineraries for Trump’s trip abroad to stops in the Middle East and Europe, we can estimate that the total Air Force One costs amounted to nearly $5 million.

It has been reported that Trump was accompanied on the first part his trip by a 1,000-member entourage which included senior White House staffers, Cabinet officials, Secret Service officers, and an unknown number of federal employees who handled logistics. In 1999, GAO reported that 592 government workers from thirteen different departments or agencies traveled with President Clinton to Chile the prior year. Each federal working may be eligible for a per diem for incidental expenses, meals, and lodging, the maximum amount of which varies by country.This is just a small portion of the total expenses related to the trip. For example, the President’s 50-plus vehicle motorcade and his pair of specialized protective limousines are prepositioned at arrival destinations in order to be ready to transport the President after he disembarks from Air Force One. These are typically transported in a C-5 Galaxy (with a reported 2016 cost per flight hour of $100,941).

Security concerns also make it costly to house the President overseas. For example, when Trump travelled to Jerusalem, Israel last week, he stayed at the King David Hotel where top suites can go for up to $5,500 per night. Newsweek reported that all six floors of the hotel were reserved for the U.S. government, and over 1,100 rooms were reserved in other hotels around the city.

All too often, concerns about the costs of presidential travel are viewed through a political lens: whichever party is not in control of the White House raises questions and points fingers. NTUF has long been seeking more transparency and accountability on this spending, especially regarding international travel. Modern residents go abroad far more often than in decades past, yet the bulk of the associated costs are unreported and difficult to ascertain.

One trend that may signal a change is that Trump took his first international trip later in the year than his predecessors. Presidents Obama and Bush (43) each made their first trip in February. This could be a sign of slower pace of travel, or that the Administration may additionally seek to pack more visits into fewer trips.