Columns, Opinions

Colby ’20: Reading between the dollar signs

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 23, 2017

Every president, without fail, faces criticism for wasteful use of taxpayer money on extravagant vacations and excursions. President Trump is no exception. His weekend routine of traveling to his Mar-a-Lago estate — which he has coined the “Winter White House” — has many opponents  petulantly complaining about Trump’s frivolous spending.

Just a month into the Trump presidency, multiple publications have sensationally covered the sheer cost of Trump’s travel. Headlines like “Trump’s 3 Trips to Mar-a-Lago Cost $10 Million and Your Taxes Are Paying For It” and “President Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago have cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million” show the cost-oriented focus of the media. But the Mar-a-Lago hotel has not been the only excessive cost that has consumed media outlets and politicians. The New York Times published a story in December titled, “New York Asks U.S. to Pay Trump Security Costs; Puts First Bill at $35 Million,” in regards to the security Trump’s family requires at Trump Tower. These headlines divert attention away from more important issues with Trump’s spending and instead emphasize the cost to taxpayers, which is nothing new.

It is important to note this issue is not isolated to Trump; criticism of extravagant spending has been a tool of political opponents to attack previous administrations. Many outlets were outraged when it was revealed that $3.6 million was spent when former President Barack Obama went on a weekend golfing getaway with Tiger Woods. In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “accused the president of being out of touch.” Even Trump criticized Obama, tweeting “Why is @BarackObama always campaigning or on vacation?” During his eight years in office, Obama’s travel expenses totaled about $97 million; this is no small fee, but it is still similar to former President George W. Bush’s travel costs. Throughout his time as president, Bush took 879 days of vacation to his ranch in Texas, and his cabinet members and Secret Service personnel’s salaries were arguably going toward a president who was not working. Both former presidents spent a sizable amount of money on personal travel, proving this spending is not exclusive to a single party.

Even if other presidents weren’t as wasteful as Trump, these sums are inconsequential compared to the president’s larger travel budget. On personal vacations, presidents are responsible for their own food and lodging while taxpayers foot the bill for all costs related to security and staff travel. These auxiliary expenses are not incurred solely during vacations, but also during diplomatic and domestic travel. The president’s use of Air Force One costs taxpayers about $200,000 an hour regardless of whether the plane is being used for vacations or official travel. In the grand scheme of typical White House expenses — for example, taxpayers had to pay $1.4 billion per year to run Obama’s White House — vacation costs seem truly insignificant.  While it is politically opportunistic to dwell on Trump’s travel expenses, the bipartisan hypocrisy involved in and the relatively minor size of the issue are why journalists should be less concerned about the cost of presidents’ personal travel.

Criticisms about relatively insignificant spending steal headlines while far more abhorrent actions by the Trump administration go underexamined. It is time to stop focusing on Trump’s monetary waste and instead focus on the conflicts of interest and security concerns that go along with Trump’s travel. When North Korea conducted a missile test Feb. 12, Trump responded in the presence of members of the Mar-a-Lago resort who had no security clearance. Members of the resort also took photos with the soldier who accompanies the president with the computer that controls nuclear missiles. These photos ended up on Facebook and other social media platforms, displaying Mar-a-Lago members’ unfettered access to the president and the Japanese prime minister during their visit.

What’s more worrisome is the fact that Trump seems to be getting rich off of his new title at the expense of taxpayer dollars. Since becoming president, Trump has doubled his membership fee for Mar-a-Lago, and this was undoubtedly tied to the access to the president one gains as a member. To incentivize membership, Trump has showed up at members’ weddings during his visits to the resort. There have also been talks about the Secret Service leasing an entire floor in Trump Tower, which would mean $1.5 million of taxpayer money being directly transferred into Trump’s corporate bank account. Most recently, it cost taxpayers $100,000 to provide security for Eric Trump on a “Trump Organization promotional trip” to Uruguay. The idea that the government is paying to help the president make larger profits is deeply disturbing.

Yes, Trump’s spending is absurd. But it is not how much he is spending but what he is doing with the money that is truly concerning. In the past few weeks, flashy, less substantive topics that steal headlines have received lots of attention, while more concerning news has gone overlooked. With this recent overabundance of outrageous news, it is increasingly clear that the burden lies on readers to sift through and acknowledge what is truly corrupt.

Owen Colby ’20 can be reached at owen_colby@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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