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It sure sounds outrageous. On his upcoming presidential trip to India, President Barack Obama is bringing an entourage of 3,000, staying in swanky hotels, guarded by an armada of Navy ships -- costing American taxpayers the staggering sum of $200 million a day.
To say this figure -- $200 million a day -- has made the rounds in the blogosphere would be a huge understatement. It has been repeated by nearly every conservative pundit in the land: Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck, Drudge. Always with a healthy dose of indignation.
It also got picked up by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Nov. 3, 2010, it was just the latest example of government excess and spending from the Obama administration.
"The president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day," Bachmann said. "He's taking 2,000 people with him.
He will be renting out over 870 rooms in India. And these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending. It's a very small example, Anderson.
"And I think this is an example of the massive overspending that we have seen, not only just in the last two years, really in the last four. That's what we saw at the ballot box last evening."
Again, $200 million a day sounds outrageous. But is it true?
The White House says, emphatically, that it's not.
"Due to security concerns, we are unable to outline details associated with security procedures and costs, but it’s safe to say these numbers are wildly inflated," said White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield.
Cooper asked Bachmann how she came up with the number.
"These are the numbers that have been coming out in the press," Bachmann said.
Actually it's a figure that came from just one source, a news agency in India, relying on an anonymous source. It was then repeated thousands more times in the blogosphere and over conservative airwaves.
The claim that the U.S. would be spending "a whopping $200 million per day" on Obama's visit to Mumbai, India, originated in a report from the news agency Press Trust of India. It was an estimate attributed anonymously to "a top official of the Maharashtra Government privy to the arrangements for the high-profile visit." Maharashtra is a state located in western India.
Here's what the story said:
"The huge amount of around $200 million would be spent on security, stay and other aspects of the Presidential visit," a top official of the Maharashtra Government privy to the arrangements for the high-profile visit said.
About 3,000 people including Secret Service agents, U.S. government officials and journalists would accompany the President. Several officials from the White House and U.S. security agencies are already here for the past one week with helicopters, a ship and high-end security instruments.
Said Bedingfield: "The numbers reported in this article have no basis in reality."
Now it's true that overseas travel by presidents can be expensive, said Kelley Gannon, who worked on the press advance team for George H. W. Bush and was director of press advance for George W. Bush. "You have to re-create a mini White House."
But pegging an exact cost has long been an elusive task for news reporters.
In an Oct. 7, 2009, story for McClatchy Newspapers, reporter Steven Thomma took a stab:
The costs of the trips -- borne by taxpayers -- are difficult to measure, but they're expensive. When (the president) uses the familiar blue-and-white reconfigured 747 as Air Force One, it costs $100,219 an hour to operate, according to the Air Force. And that's just HIS plane.
There also are cargo planes, used to fly in armored limousines, helicopters, staff and other equipment, as well as the Secret Service. A single Air Force C-17 cargo jet, for example, costs $6,960 an hour, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A total of 77 other aircraft were used on one multi-country trip to Asia by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, according to the Air Force Times, including 14 C-17 Globemasters, 12 C-5 Galaxys, three C-141 Starlifters and two C-130 Hercules. ABC News at the time estimated the cost of that entire trip at $50 million.
An Air Force Times story on March 27, 2000, said Clinton's trip to India and Pakistan "may be the most expensive such mission ever carried out by the Air Force." The reporters said the operation required hundreds of aircraft missions. They tagged the cost of the 5-day trip at $50 million as well. That comes to $10 million per day.
Previous trips by the Clinton administration were less expensive, according to a September 1999 U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis of the costs for Clinton's 1998 trips to Africa, Chile and China.
"Presidential travel to foreign destinations requires planning, coordination, and logistical and personnel support," the report stated. "The estimated incremental costs of President Clinton’s trips to Africa, Chile, and China were at least $42.8 million, $10.5 million, and $18.8 million, respectively. The largest of these costs consisted of operating expenses of the president’s aircraft and other military passenger and cargo aircraft; travel expenses, including lodging for the travelers; and telecommunications, vehicle, and other equipment rentals and procurement in the countries visited."
We couldn't find any significant evidence that Obama's 3-day trip to India was going to be unusual in scope.
According to Press Trust of India and the Times of India, two US Air Force Jumbos and four helicopters landed ahead of the president's visit; and Obama will be protected by a fleet of 34 warships, including an aircraft carrier.
In addition, the Times story states:
Obama is expected to fly by a helicopter -- Marine One -- from the city airport to the Indian Navy's helibase INS Shikra at Colaba in south Mumbai.
From there, he will drive down in a Lincoln Continental -- the Presidential limousine -- to the nearby the Taj Hotel.
Two jets, armed with advanced communication and security systems, and a fleet of over 40 cars will be part of Obama's convoy.
Around 800 rooms have been booked for the President and his entourage in Taj Hotel and Hyatt.
The President will have a security ring of American elite Secret Service, which are tasked to guard the President, along with National Security Guards (NSG) and personnel from central paramilitary forces and local police in Mumbai and Delhi.
Similar arrangements will be in place in Delhi, with the Air Force One to be kept in all readiness throughout Obama's stay here from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning.
That probably sounds like a lot, but it's pretty standard fare for presidential travel, several people familiar with such travel told us.
James Gerstenzang, a former reporter who covered numerous foreign trips by presidents for the Los Angeles Times, laughed at the $200 million a day figure, which he guessed was probably "inflated by a factor of 10." And the claim about the entourage of 3,000 also seems grossly inflated, he said. He noted that any members of the press traveling with the president pay their own way, so that's not a cost borne by taxpayers.
"It really bothers me when numbers like that get thrown around by both sides for political reasons, without it being backed up," Gerstenzang said.
Veteran reporter David Jackson, who has traveled on a number of foreign trips by presidents, wrote for the USA Today, "No, President Obama's trip is not going to cost $200 million a day."
"That figure -- first thrown out by a single Indian media outlet and now viral on conservative talk radio -- is wildly, wildly off the mark."
And basing the claim on an estimate from an anonymous state government official in India is dubious at best.
"I think you have to ask, 'How would they know how much any of this costs?'" said Gannon, the advance press director under George W. Bush "We don't share that with officials from foreign governments. I'd question where they got that number from. That does sound very inflated."
As fact-checkers, we wish we had hard numbers from public documents to settle the issue of the cost of Obama's trip to India. But they don't exist. White House officials say details about foreign travel -- including the cost -- are not released for security reasons. So we don't know the cost to taxpayers of Obama's trip.
But we think Bachmann and others have a responsibility to back up statistics they cite. And in this case, the backing appears to be one news story, relying on an anonymous state government official in India. People familiar with presidential travel say that estimate is way off, and they question how a government official in India would know anyway. And a report by the independent GAO backs that up: A trip to India by Clinton, regarded at the time as perhaps the most expensive in history, was estimated to cost $50 million, or $10 million per day. That alone should cause someone to question the $200 million a day figure. In short, we don't see any evidence to back up this statistic. And we rate Bachmann's claim False.
Press Trust of India, "US to spend $200 mn a day on Obama's Mumbai visit," Nov. 3, 2010
GAO, Presidential Travel: Costs and Accounting For the President’s 1998 Trips to Africa, Chile, and China, September 1999
McClatchy Newspapers, "Obama's No. 1 -- most foreign travel by first year president," by Steven Thomma, Oct. 7, 2009
Times of India, "34 US warships to guard Obama in India," Nov. 4, 2010
FactCheck.org, "Trip to Mumbai," by Lara Seligman, Nov. 3, 2010
Media Matters, "White House debunks "wildly inflated" $200M-per-day price tag for Obama's India trip," by Sarah Pavlus, Nov. 3, 2010
Daily Mail, "'$200m-a-day' cost of Barack Obama's trip to India will be picked up by U.S. taxpayers," by James White, Nov. 2, 2010
CNN, Transcript: Anderson Cooper's interview with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Nov. 3, 2010
USA Today, "Obama's India trip -- not as expensive as you may have heard," by David Jackson, Nov. 4, 2010
The Times of India, "No room at the Taj: City pulls out all stops to host Obama," by Mateen Hafeez and Reeba Zachariah, Oct. 23, 2010
Air Force Times, "Clinton's Passage to India Racks Up Costs," by Bryant Jordan, March 27, 2000
Intrerview with James Gerstenzang, Nov. 4, 2010
E-mail interview with White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield, Nov. 3, 2010
Interview with Kelley Gannon, director of press advance for George W. Bush, Nov. 4, 2010
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