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Trip to Mumbai


Q: Is President Obama’s trip to India going to cost $200 million per day?

A: This highly doubtful claim originated with one Indian news agency quoting an anonymous source in Mumbai. The White House says it is "wildly exaggerated," and there’s no evidence to support such a huge figure.

FULL QUESTION

There are reports all over that Obama’s India trip will cost $200 million per day. I haven’t been able to find a credible rebuttal to this but I can’t believe it could be true.

FULL ANSWER

This story has spread rapidly among the president’s critics, but there is simply no evidence to support it. And common sense should lead anyone to doubt it. For example, the entire U.S. war effort in Afghanistan currently costs less than that — about $5.7 billion per month, according to the Congressional Research Service, or roughly $190 million per day. How could a peaceful state visit cost more than a war?

What else can you get for $200 million? Try the New Jersey Nets basketball team or possibly the Hope diamond — if only the Smithsonian were selling it.

The hard-to-swallow claim originated with a Nov. 2 Press Trust of India article quoting an unnamed "top official" in the government of Maharashtra (one of India’s states). The source was quoted as saying that Obama’s upcoming trip to Mumbai will cost $200 million per day for security and living arrangements, among other things. The story claimed that the president would be accompanied by about 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents, government officials and journalists, and will stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel — the scene of a 2008 terrorist attack.

We find stories based on anonymous sources always deserve special caution, especially when they come from only one news organization. In this case, the anonymous official is not even in the U.S. government, and any information about costs would necessarily have come second-hand at best, an added reason for caution.

Nevertheless, the story was widely repeated without any additional reporting. Soon after the article was released, The Drudge Report — a news aggregation website — linked to the Press Trust of India article, with the headline "REPORT: US to spend $200 million per day on Obama’s Mumbai visit…" Later that day, Rush Limbaugh claimed on his radio show that "Five hundred seven rooms at the Taj Mahal, 40 airplanes, $200 million a day this nation will spend on Obama’s trip to India." He repeats the "$200 million a day" claim several times throughout the show without specifying its source.

The allegation has generated a great deal of Internet discourse over the past few days, including a Washington Times post that claims Obama’s entourage on the trip "will spend enough to bankrupt a small nation." According to the Economic Times and The Daily Mail, Obama will take over the entire 570-room Taj Mahal Hotel for the trip. A Google search for the exact words of the original Press Trust article returned about 11,000 results. And we received about two dozen queries about it.

The White House is always reluctant to discuss cost figures about presidential trips, since the bulk of the expense is for Secret Service security. Not this time. The White House press office, which said it had been flooded with queries, gave us the following statement:

Matt Lehrich, White House Office of Media Affairs: The numbers reported in this article have no basis in reality. 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.

It is always costly to move a U.S. president around the world. And in this case, the president is attending a G-20 meeting and will be accompanied by several cabinet officials. But given the dubious source of this assertion, the fact that the claimed cost exceeds the cost of a war, the flat denial by the White House and the lack of any evidence to support the claim, we’ll classify this one as false.

–Lara Seligman

Update, Nov. 4: Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota repeated the claim Nov. 3 on CNN’s "Anderson Cooper 360," attacking Obama for "over-the-top spending." When Cooper countered that "no one really knows the cost, because for security reasons they don’t disclose the cost," Bachmann responded, “Well these are the numbers that have been coming out in the press."

On Nov. 4, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell called the story "absolutely absurd," because it had claimed that the U.S. Navy was sending 34 warships to the coast off Mumbai as part of the president’s visit:

Morrell, Nov. 4: I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy — some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier — in support of the president’s trip to Asia. … That’s just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.

ABC News reported that 34 ships would actually amount to nearly 12 percent of the 288 in the Navy’s fleet, not 10 percent.

Later the same day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during his regular press briefing that the $200 million per day estimate is incorrect.

Gibbs, Nov 4: Well, we have set the record straight with you guys. I’m not going to go into how much it costs to protect the president. Costs are comparable to when President Clinton and when President Bush traveled abroad. 

So how much did those trips cost? In the case of some Clinton trips, we have figures from a 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office — now called the Government Accountability Office. The GAO said that Clinton’s trips to Africa, Chile and China in 1998 cost at least $42.8 million, $10.5 million and $18.8 million, respectively — not counting the still-classified cost of providing Secret Service protection.

In Africa, Clinton was accompanied by about 1,300 individuals — not including members of the Secret Service — representing the White House, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The president visited six countries in 12 days, which means the trip cost $3.6 million per day.

Clinton made the five-day Chile trip in order to attend the second Summit of the Americas — a meeting of 34 heads of state or governments from countries in the Americas — and to hold meetings with the president of Chile. About 600 individuals accompanied the president on the trip, which we calculated would have cost $2.1 million per day.

When Clinton visited China to conduct talks with the president of China, he brought along about 500 individuals. The trip lasted nine days, which works out to a little less than $2.1 million per day.

The total cost including Secret Service protection would of course be somewhat higher, but even doubling or tripling those figures and adding in an adjustment for inflation would not produce anything close to the figure given by the Indian news article for Obama’s trip.

Sources

Schmelzer, Paul. "Using inaccurate figure, Bachmann calls Obama’s India trip ‘massive overspending.’" The Minnesota Independent. 4 Nov 2010.

Martinez, Luis "Pentagon Dismisses Reports of 34 Warships for Obama Trip Security" ABC News. 4 Nov 2010.

General Accounting Office. "Costs and Accounting For the President’s 1998 Trips to Africa, Chile, and China." 21 Sept 1999.

Congressional Research Service. "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11." 2 Sep 2010.

Eichelberger, Curtis. "Prokhorov’s $200 Million Purchase of Nets Gets NBA Approval." Bloomberg Business Week. 12 May 2010.

"Mystery of the Hope Diamond." Press release. Smithsonian Channel.25 Oct 2010.

Press Trust of India. "US to spend $200 mn a day on Obama’s Mumbai visit." NDTV.com. 2 Nov 2010.

Sengupta, Somini. "At Least 100 Dead in India Terror Attacks." New York Times. 26 Nov 2008.

The Drudge Report. 2 November 2010, accessed 3 Nov 2010.

Stack of Stuff Quick Hits Page. The Rush Limbaugh Show. 2 Nov 2010, accessed 3 Nov 2010.

Knight, Robert. "Pulling back the curtain on Obama’s audacity." The Washington Times. 29 Oct 2010.

Mumbai Mirror. "Barack and Michelle’s Mumbai darshan plans." The Economic Times. 23 Oct 2010.

White, James. "’$200m-a-day’ cost of Barack Obama’s trip to India will be picked up by U.S. taxpayers." The Daily Mail. 2 Nov 2010.