WASHINGTON — Critics for decades have sniped at the cost of presidential travel, but Donald Trump’s frequent — and expensive — trips to his Florida resort to conduct government business and play golf have sparked a level of disapproval his predecessors never faced.
Trump, who as a citizen needled President Obama for his taxpayer-funded travel, already has racked up millions in government expenses for repeated trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
He has visited his Winter White House seven times since he was inaugurated Jan. 20, spending about a quarter of his time as the leader of the free world either traveling to or staying at the glitzy resort.
And when he does visit other parts of the country, it's often in campaign-style rallies meant to gin up his base — not the more policy-oriented speeches earlier Republican and Democratic presidents delivered during their first 100 days in places such as Omaha, Beaver, Pa. or Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Transporting, securing and protecting the first family in a densely populated stretch of South Florida is an expensive task, said James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University in Indiana who has studied presidential travel.
"The fact that he’s a repeat visitor puts a real drain on local municipal service," McCann said. "It's a real burden on local airline providers. When the president comes in, everything has to stop."
– Federal travel and security costs for Mar-a-Lago visits have already added up to millions if a Government Accountability Office review of a four-day trip Obama took in February 2016 is any yardstick.
Obama’s trip, which began with an official visit to Chicago and ended with a golf outing in Florida, cost U.S. taxpayers $3.6 million. Although GAO declined to isolate the expenses tied to the Florida portion of the trip, Obama spent all three nights in the Sunshine State before returning to Washington. The review did not examine local or state agency costs.
– The Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office has already logged $3.5 million in overtime costs through April 9 for which it’s seeking reimbursement, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The Sheriff’s office spends roughly $60,000 in overtime every day to provide protection and traffic control when the president is at his Winter White House, she said. The visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month cost the county $ 1.5 million.
– A Washington Post analysis finds that the cost of Coast Guard protection of Mar-a-Lago (Spanish for “Sea to Lake”), which sits on land straddling the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Intracoastal Waterway to the west, is piling up and could run into the “tens of millions” over his four-year term.
The increased costs to protect the president come as Trump is proposing to slash $1.3 billion — or 12% — from the Coast Guard budget. A bipartisan group of senators wrote in a letter to Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney that the cut would compromise maritime security.
Protecting Mar-a-Lago is more complicated and costly compared to the second homes of previous presidents, especially given Trump's penchant of inviting over world leaders. Aside from Xi, the president also has hosted Japanese Prime Minster Shinzō Abe in February.
Providing round-the-clock protection in such a high-traffic part of the country has meant complex security arrangements involving numerous federal and local law enforcement.
In contrast, Ronald Reagan’s retreats to the hills of Santa Barbara, George H.W. Bush’s escapes to Kennebunkport, Maine, and George W. Bush’s jaunts to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, were cheaper to safeguard because they not only were less frequent but also involved accommodations that were more isolated.
What hasn’t changed? Critics only too happy to dredge up his previous criticism of Obama’s trips and bemoan the millions of taxpayer dollars spent protecting Trump and his family every time they visit Mar-a-Lago.
“The criticism here is almost laughably situational” said Brendan Doherty, a politics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis who studies presidential trips. “Democrats have an awful lot to say about President Trump’s travels. Republicans had an awful lot to say about President Obama’s travels. But they’re fairly quiet of course when it’s the president of their own party who is going on so-called vacations at great expense to taxpayers.”
On cue, it is Democrats who have led the scrutiny of Trump’s travels.
The Government Accountability Office agreed last month to look into security and cost concerns raised by the president’s visits to Mar-a-Lago after a request by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and three other Capitol Hill Democrats.
Three other congressional Democrats, each of whom represent portions of Palm Beach County, are seeking reimbursement for security costs incurred by local emergency responders. They’ve also raised concerns that the security footprint required of a presidential visit has cost local flight-related businesses collectively more than $700,000 because of air space restrictions that have grounded planes and helicopters.
“During your campaign and presidency, you vowed to make jobs more plentiful and government less wasteful,” Reps. Lois Frankel, Alcee Hastings and Ted Deutch wrote to Trump. “We sincerely request that you lead by example.”
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer last month defended the president’s frequent visits to Mar-a-Lago as working trips, not vacations.
“Presidents always travel. And I think the president, wherever he goes, he carries the apparatus of the White House,” Spicer said. “The president will continue to go and travel around the country and have meetings to solve the nation's problems. He (works) seven days a week. This is where he goes to see his family. He brings people down there. This is part of being president.”
Trump was less charitable about Obama’s travel.
In 2012, Trump tweeted his displeasure: “President @BarackObama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars----Unbelievable!”
In 2014, Trump jabbed Obama again on Twitter: “We pay for Obama's travel so he can fundraise millions so Democrats can run on lies. Then we pay for his golf.”
The revenue Trump's visits generate does not begin to cover the expense local governments shoulder. A preliminary study by the Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council concluded that a four-night visit by the president’s entourage and the news media covering him (about 300 people) generates only about $15,000 in local bed and sales taxes.
But Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of county-sponsored Discover the Palm Beaches Florida, said the Winter White House lends a prestige factor.
“From a tourism perspective, we expect that the renewed media focus on the president’s ocean front retreat will raise the profile of The Palm Beaches and entice curious travelers to explore the vast array of recreational and cultural activities, innovative restaurants and award-winning hotels that these headlining celebrities frequent during their regular visits,” he said.