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Presidential security and travel costs: the source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

How much does it cost to have Melania and Barron Trump live in New York rather than at the White House? How much do the President’s weekend trips to Florida cost?

Sadly, this is one of those questions that cannot be fully answered using officially published information, not least because the details of the budget for protecting the President and First Family are classified (as pointed out by Politico in paragraph 7). Not only that, but there are lots of judgements to make about what costs to include in these estimates since multiple parts of multiple departments are involved in multiple ways. This is one issue where we’ll probably have to wait for next year’s budgets and reports come out before we have a very clear picture of a) what the actual costs are, and b) how they compare to previous administrations.

Currently, news sources are relying on a combination of interviews with sources in the know and estimates based on past budgets and reports. Even Congress and the Government Accountability Office rely on commissioned reports that, themselves, rely on information that doesn’t seem to be publicly available. So with all of my usual caveats for this series* plus all the above as additional caveats, here are some of the past budgets and reports that I’ve been able to dig up…

The most recent estimates of domestic presidential travel are found in an October 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office. (I believe this is the report mentioned in the recent Washington Post article estimating costs of current presidential travel.) If this report, which focuses on a single trip, offers anything like an average estimate of costs per day for presidential travel, over and above typical security costs, we’re looking at about $901,000 per day when looking at only the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense (not local police departments or other local services).

Meanwhile, local police departments also contribute to protection. Since no official numbers seem to be available for key numbers floating around on this topic, here are some that get quoted often, and where they come from. Quite a few news outlets are quoting the ballpark estimates of about $500,000 per day (provided by several anonymous sources to CBS in NYC and then quoted by other news outlets) as the local police force costs when all members of the First Family are in town for a day — it costs less President is not there with the rest of  the First Family. Politico took a different tack, using NYPD overtime costs to estimate local costs for Obama visits to New York City. They reported this at somewhere around $8000 per hour during Obama’s recent 4- and 6-hour visits to New York City (paragraph 13). They also acknowledge that this is a blunt instrument when estimating costs on this issue since it only includes overtime and not straight salaries or infrastructure.

Back to government reports, a 2012 Congressional Research report on presidential travel talks mostly about international travel costs, but it mentions one trip to Hawaii in 1990, saying that it cost the Air Force “$1 million to $1.5 million.” (I haven’t yet been able to put my hands on the full text of that report, H. Rept. 102-985 from October 1992, and without that it’s unclear how long that Hawaii trip was or whether the 2012 report is using 1990 or 2012 dollars, but here’s an inflation calculator to play with if you like.) Without further information, this isn’t a very useful number.

Another way to build context for current reports on presidential travel is to look at the Department of Homeland Security’s Budget Justification Book for FY2017, volume 3 (dealing with the Secret Service). Useful information in this 1,189-page volume includes:

  • Since the Secret Service protects presidential candidates in addition to the President, Vice President, First and Second Families, and visiting dignitaries, FY2016 was an expensive year costing $753,012,000 for protections operations and support. $100,853,000 was for the presidential campaign alone (page 7 of the section on Operations and Support).
  • They have requested $734,547,000 for FY2017 (page 1 of the section on Operations and Support).
  • Numbers of trips Obama went on per year, durations not listed (page 14 of the section on Operations and Support):

If anyone else has found more or better primary sources for this, please let me know!

* Two caveats: 1) Not all knowable things are knowable using official, original published sources, but that’s the limit I’ve set for myself even when that’s inconvenient or frustrating, and 2) I am a librarian trained in tracking down and evaluating sources — nothing more or less than that. I’m doing my best to find the most authoritative version of the primary sources behind the news, and I welcome suggestions and corrections. If you or someone you know would like to add to my collection of primary sources, please let me know.

Published inSources behind the news