Clinton Campaign Pays for Obama Trip (But Not Really)

As President Obama starts campaigning for Hillary Clinton, a perennial question arises.


As President Obama officially starts campaigning for Hillary Clinton to succeed him in office, a perennial question has naturally arisen.  ABC‘s Jordyn Phelps:

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump took to Twitter Tuesday to express outrage over the cost to taxpayers for President Obama’s campaign trip to Charlotte, North Carolina with Hillary Clinton.

But what is the actual cost to taxpayers?

In the case of political travel by the president, there are rules that the federal government be reimbursed by the appropriate political organization for the costs of the travel.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One that today’s trip, for the president’s first joint campaign appearance with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, was no exception to that rule.

“The White House of course follows all rules and regulations that apply to the president’s political travel,” Earnest said, explaining that the DNC discloses payments made to the federal government for such purposes on a monthly basis to the FEC in compliance with the regulation.

In the most recently available figures, the cost of operating Air Force One averaged approximately $200,000 an hour, according to the Air Force. This figure includes fuel, food, repairs, and basic maintenance.

“As is the standard practice, the campaign will cover its portion of the costs,” a Clinton aide told ABC News.

But while relevant political organizations may be on the hook for paying part of the costs associated with the plane’s operation, there are additional security costs associated with presidential travel that do fall to the taxpayers.

Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said there’s a well-established process for sorting which costs can be charged to political organizations.

“There’s a process that is used to allocate the costs between the DNC or the relevant campaign and the government,” Painter told ABC News. “The cost of the Secret Service is paid for the taxpayer. If the president goes on vacation, we run into the same thing.”


[…]In the case of political figures flying aboard Air Force One, as was the case today with Hillary Clinton and several of her campaign aides who also traveled with her, Painter said they did not get a free ride.

There’s a formula by which they are charged for their flight comparable to the cost of a commercial first class ticket, he said.

Obama is following the same practice as his predecessors here. It’s laughable to say that paying $1000 or so to cover the cost of a million dollar flight—and I’m being conservative in that estimate, considering the plane alone costs $200,000 an hour—constitutes the campaign reimbursing the taxpayer.  We are in fact paying a hefty price for the president to fly around the country campaigning for Hillary.

But I don’t see how we get around that. Obama is president regardless of whether he’s doing the taxpayer’s business, playing golf, sleeping, or playing politician. He naturally has to be provided Secret Service protection; it would be just as tragic were he assassinated campaigning as it would en route to any other appearance. Similarly, he can’t simply fly commercial and eschew the security and secure communications capabilities of Air Force One.

I suppose we could insist that campaigns take on the fully burdened costs of all that, but it would be rather silly. Granting that Clinton and the DNC are likely to spend a billion dollars or more this cycle, it’s a pretty significant chunk of change. Further, it’s more than a little tricky deciding what portion of a trip is “official business” vice “party business.” If he gives a speech to the Kiwanis Club and also attends a fundraising dinner, is it a 50-50 split? Do we do it based on how much time he spent at each event? Or do we say that he was in town, anyway, so there’s little additional cost to the taxpayer? For that matter, even his “official business” speeches and appearances are inherently political at this point in a cycle. For months, he’s been going after Donald Trump, at least obliquely.  When do we start charging for that?

The answer, I think, is that we don’t. We have rules in place pretending to delineate these issues and recoup money to the Treasury. But it’s more symbolism than substance.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    So in other words, Trump is accusing Hillary of being corrupt for following the established rules, which have been used by Presidents and candidates of both parties for decades.

    And the so-called liberal media reports his allegations and the administration’s response with their typical view that opinions differ on the shape of the world, rather than suggesting that making unfounded allegations should reduce Trump’s credibility. But of course it is Clinton who has trustworthiness issues.

  2. In addition to safety, Air Force One exists for the purpose of allowing Presidents to continue conducting business while travelling, including engaging in secure communications with aides and others on an as-needed basis. For a number of reasons that I would think are obvious, Presidents need to have the ability to communicate with aides and, especially, the national military command, at all times. As a result, the President needs AF One regardless of the purpose of his trip.

    Hillary was on the plane in no small part because she had been giving a speech that morning in Washington so, it made sense for her and Obama to travel together. Her campaign is required to compensate the government for that travel on the same basis that member of the press who take AF One or another government plane on Presidential trips. No, it doesn’t cover the full cost of the trip but it does cover some portion.

    This isn’t a perfect solution to this dilemma of when POTUS is acting as President and when he’s acting as candidate/politician but it’s something. Mostly though, this “controversy” is much ado about nothing.

  3. Joe says:

    My first thought was not so much the financial cost, but how does one non-incumbent candidate get to fly around on Air Force One? The branding is worth far more than the ticket, no matter how you allocate the costs. But I suppose its no different than campaigning as an incumbent President. Being the incumbent has its privileges and so does being in the incumbent party.

  4. @Doug Mataconis: Agreed, as there is a level of unpredictability as to when a President transitions from performing NCA/executive roles even as the schedule has the individual performing either public cheerleading roles or political roles. The best example is 9/11 — the Bush White House had a day scheduled for public cheerleading and reading to kids ( a useful public messaging opportunity) but by 9:45AM, Bush was in explicit NCA tasking

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Interesting thought:

    The POTUS is POTUS 24/7/365. There is no time when he is off the clock. That comes to 61,320 hours per year.

    His salary is 400,000. So he is in effect earning $6.50 an hour, below federal minimum wage, currently $7.25. If we wanted to get Obama or any POTUS up to minimum wage, we’d have to pay him $44,570 more than current salary. Given eight years, I’d say we owe Obama $356,560.

  6. JKB says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, with that math, we’d owe a poor private or seaman recruit a whole lot more to bring them up to minimum wages. The only difference is, after the first year, they get 30 days leave.

  7. michael reynolds says:


    My father was career army, came in as a private, retired as a chief warrant, 2 tours in Vietnam. His last assignment was as skipper of an ocean-going tugboat in the Azores, servicing Lajes airbase. (Where the Navy flies the planes, the Air Force handles ground operations, and the Army does the boats.)

    Now, in theory he could have been called any time, but mostly he sauntered down the beach with a cup of coffee once a day to make sure things needing painting had been painted and things needing maintenance had been maintained. No one ever called him at 3 AM to tell him some shitstorm had blown up in some country he’d never heard of and oh, by the way, the Russians, Chinese and Iranians are all involved.

    He did however get to drive the boat to England for maintenance every couple of years.

    Some Marine sitting in a FOB in the wilds of Afghanistan? Frankly he ought to be making 400k a year. I wouldn’t do that job for multiples of that salary.

  8. steve s says:

    @michael reynolds:


  9. Tyrell says:

    The other week Hillary and Senator Warren were on the road together. Looked like they need to loosen up a little. Now what they should do is team up with someone like Willie Nelson. That would really draw crowds and get the people excited.
    Imagine traveling around with Willie on his bus – talk about running on fumes !
    “On the road again
    Just can’t wait to get on the road again” (Nelson)

  10. CrustyDem says:

    @steve s:
    @michael reynolds:

    Actually factor of 7, you can’t multiple days in a year*days in a week*hours in a day, so the prez makes $46/hr for working 24/7.. There are some perks, but it’s not exactly Mike Trout/Steph Curry/Tom Brady Money…

    Hell, it ain’t even Joey Iosefa money, and you don’t even know the NE Patriots FB…

  11. Tyrell says:

    @CrustyDem: No, and look at some of the NBA numbers being thrown around ! Maybe Hillary should consider Mark Cuban as her vp choice.
    A billion dollar campaign ? Unbelievable.

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