“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.”
Michele Bachmann on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010 in a CNN interview
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.
Again, $200 million a day sounds outrageous. But is it true?
The White House says, emphatically, that it’s not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.