Within two weeks of taking office, headlines across the world have been asking how much will Trump’s vacations and maintaining his family’s lavish lifestyle cost taxpayers? It has become America’s new billion-dollar question. Literally. A lot of common numbers keep being cited: a trip to Mar-a-Lago costs us $3 million per day, or protecting the first lady and their youngest son in New York costs $1 million per day. Even when these numbers are revised, they all seem to be based on the same forensics from the same handful of sources. Let’s start over and solve this question like physicists would. Don’t worry, no rocket science needed.
Every step and assumption used in our calculation is painstakingly spelled out below, but if you are impatient, in a hurry, or just want the answer, click here.
How Physicists solve impossible problems
If you want to thank the right people for the computer or phone you are using to read this, you can start with names you know, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but at the end of the day, the credit must go to the fathers of Quantum Mechanics, like Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrödinger, and Enrico Fermi. They are the ones who invented the science that put the “electron” in electronics.
Dr. Fermi, especially, taught us that often times, clever insight and some simple assumptions can come up with very good estimates of even the hardest problems. Fermi would often give impossible-sounding questions to his students to drive that point home. His most famous was, “How many piano tuners are there in New York City.” No, don’t jump on Google (remember, it didn’t exist in the 1950’s). Estimate. How many people live in New York? What fraction of them own a piano? How often is each piano tuned? How many music schools and concert halls are there? How many pianos are in each? How often are they tuned? Now, how many pianos can be tuned in a day? How many working days in a year? How many tuners would be needed to keep up with that demand? Voilà.
The reason these “Fermi problems” work is that if you make enough estimates, the chances are very good that you will guess too high just as often as too low. In the end, those tend to balance out, and your final numbers will be fairly reasonable.
The forensics in the media to estimate the Trump family’s cost to taxpayers have gone stale
There’s been a lot of talk since the inauguration of how much money Trump’s lavish lifestyle is costing the American taxpayer in security and staffing, what with his regular trips to Mar-a-Lago, his wife and youngest son living in New York, and his older children jet-setting across the globe. Dig down, however, and almost everyone is using the same one or two sources to base their numbers. Specifically, a 2016 GAO report of the 2013 trip former President Obama took to Illinois and Florida, and some early numbers leaked from the New York City government.
Don’t misunderstand us, forensics is good science. Take any forensics online course (and believe us, there are plenty of free ones out there) and you will see that regardless of the actual subject (crime-scene investigation, medical, accounting, archeology), you start with historical precedent, look at the current evidence, and draw logical conclusions. However, any good forensics teacher or practitioner will admit that their conclusions are only as good as the background information (precedent) they came in with.
The taxpayer cost from the Trump family seems to be split between their daily protection detail and vacation/travel expenses. When it comes to secret service protection, there is almost no information publicly available. That makes good sense. Since protection is a large part of any trip’s expenses, we also have a lack of information about travel. In other words, forensics is inherently limited by a lack of the good information it needs.
So let’s approach this like Fermi would, and start from scratch. All new forensics, all new assumptions, all new data, and complete transparency in the process, so that when better numbers come out, the conclusions can be quickly fixed.
(Remember, you can still scroll to the end to see the conclusions without all the science-y and boring stuff…)
Secret Service protection
The government already pays the salaries of the secret service, so there is no extra cost to taxpayers whether Trump travels or not, and regardless of where the First Lady lives, until the agents incur overtime. A 2016 Congressional Report from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee noted that there is a perpetual lack of Secret Service members, such that overtime was being heftily paid during the 2016 campaign. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for special agents is $122,583. That Congressional Report also says that secret service pay is currently capped at $163,300/yr including overtime, which 1,077 agents reached last year. Congress requested an additional $22 million to provide partial relief for the overtime protection the secret service agents gave for free. If all those 1,077 reached their salary cap from the base salary we found, overtime that was paid out cost the government an additional $44 million. Add in the $22 million in partial restitution that was owed, and at least $66 million in overtime was needed during the campaign.
The lion’s share of the protection detail was probably split between the Presidential and V.P. candidates during the last 5 months of the campaign, with more of it going to Clinton and Trump. If we allocate 60% to the two of them, then they each racked up about $20 million. Of course, now that he is POTUS, all of Trump’s children and grandkids receive a security detail, plus his own is highly beefed up. So perhaps he and his family will cost the government somewhere between $20 and $40 million a year in overtime. Let’s split the difference and call it $30 million.
Don’t forget that employers pay FICA taxes on salary (about 7.5%) as well as a host of “fringe” and “indirect” costs. If that adds on an additional 36% (which is probably low-balling it) then the net cost to Uncle Sam (and thus to you) is just around $40 million.
Of course, this doesn’t include the costs of mandatory security upgrades to Mar-a-Lago or the Trump residence in New York City. Maybe that was a one-time fee of $20 million? In short, let’s assume security costs the family a fixed $50 million this year, and $30 million per year thereafter.
Trips to Mar-a-Lago
Who pays is a function of the purpose of the trip. According to a report from the Congressional Research Office (or CRO), the government pays all the expenses for everyone’s travel when the purpose is official, but when it is political or personal, the first family, and “any assistants accompanying them, are required to reimburse the government the comparable airfare they would have paid had they traveled by commercial airline. On such trips, they pay for their own food, lodging, and other incidental expenses. Certain staff accompanying them, however, such as Secret Service agents [and communications personnel], are always considered to be on official travel and all their travel costs are paid by the government.”
How many people travel with the President? The first family flies on Air Force One. That same CRO report says the jet holds up to 75 staff, after which another craft carries the rest. Let’s assume the President flies with 50 staff (including flight crew and his protection detail) and that 25 staff are the “advance team” who set up protection and communications prior to his arrival. Let’s further assume these 25 fly two days before and return one day after Trump. And since it is doubtful that many of his staff would willingly pay out of pocket each weekend to travel with the President, consider them all to be “necessary” with their trips paid in full. But the Trumps pay out of pocket.
Travel costs. In 2012, Air Force One cost $179,750 per hour, according to the CRO report. With inflation, that’s about $188,000 per hour. Travel to and from Andrews AFB to West Palm Beach is about 4 hours, meaning Air Force One costs about $752,000 per trip. A commercial flight from DC to West Palm Beach is about $200 round trip. If Trump, his wife and son travel, they pay about $750 back for their “commercial equivalent cost” of the flight, and everyone else is covered. Let’s drop the flight cost to $750,000 for good measure.
There are also the costs of travel to and from the Air Force bases and airports (including Marine One), the Presidential motorcade (which itself is at least a dozen cars, see above), and the advance team’s flights. If the President’s limousine or other special equipment has to be shipped via cargo plane, this could go up considerably. There are also rental cars for his staff, an ambulance to pay to be on site, taxi rides, etc. So let’s round it up to $1 million for travel costs.
Lodging. The Mar-a-Lago club has 34 rooms, suites, and cabanas, so unless the government buys out the whole resort, it would seem some people stay off site. According to hotels.com, the nearest hotels are about 2.5 miles away and cost at least $380 a night online. With taxes and government discounts, maybe the rooms go as low as $400 a night. If staff stay on-site, let’s generously estimate $5,000 a night for a room. Then the advance team costs $10,000 per night, and the full entourage is $40,000 per night, at the cheapest nearby hotel. That could rocket up to $250,000 per night if everyone stays at Mar-a-Lago itself. A conservative average would be $80,000 a night for lodging when the President is in town, with people split between the two locations. A three night trip for all 75 staff, with 3 extra days for the advance team, is $190,000 in lodging.
Food. $200 a day for food and incidentals is our estimate, based on having to eat part time at the Mar-a-Lago club and half time off site. 75 people for 3 days and 25 for another 3 days is $60,000.
Local costs. CNN reports that Trump’s regular weekenders to Mar-a-Lago have forced “Palm Beach County officials, facing the prospect of paying millions of dollars in overtime costs associated with protecting President Donald Trump during his frequent visits to the tony Florida enclave,” to demand that either Trump or taxpayers “foot the bill.” Local police say a 3-day trip costs them about $180,000 in overtime for police protection details. Futhermore, the local economy has been hit quite hard with airport and business shutdowns, restaurant and hotel cancellations from tourists and locals, totaling at least $250,000 per Trump visit. If West Palm Beach sues to have all that recovered, U.S. taxpayers could add an additional quarter-million dollars per trip to our bill.
The total cost passed to taxpayers for Trump to weekend at Mar-a-Lago rounds to $1.5 million so far. However we have left off likely extra security measures such as: Air Force jets and planes securing the airspace around the resort, Coast Guard securing the coast, Air Force One being kept at the ready for an emergency departure, etc. It therefore seems reasonable to up the Florida weekend jaunt to $2 million per trip.
The First Lady and Barron
Mrs. Trump is currently living in Trump towers, but is expected to move to the White House at the end of this school year. If true, taxpayers have to foot the bill for their extra protection for only half of 2017. As we noted before, Secret Service are already salaried and only overtime poses an extra expense. We took care of that already, as well as the costs of upgrading to the penthouse and apartment complex. The extra expenses here should most mostly come from the NYPD and food/lodging to the secret service if they aren’t already based in NYC.
According to Fortune, the NYPD said in early February that Mrs. Trump costs $500,000 per day to the City. The New York Times dropped that down to about $140,000 in late February. For the six months of this year, this will cost NYC $21 million, which will probably be passed in to taxpayers one way or the other.
Eric and Donald Trump Jr.
Everyone in the Trump family has access to 24-hour secret protection. Trump’s older sons, who now run his business empire, supposedly cost taxpayers about $100,000 in a business trip to Uraguay to pay the hotel bills for his protection detail. Of course, we have to raise that for food and incidentals. If both sons take 9 trips in total per year at about this price tag, their personal travel adds at least $1 million to our bill.
Just to recap, we’ve done some digging in new sources (forensics) and made what we hope are reasonable assumptions (Fermi problems) to estimate how much extra the Trump’s lifestyle will cost the American public in 2017
- If Trump makes 30 trips this year to Mar-a-Lago, at $2 million per trip, it will have cost us an extra $60 million.
- Extra secret service protection for the Trump family probably cost $40 million.
- Mrs. Trump’s choice to live at home for the first have of 2017 will cost around $21 million.
- We blindly estimated that security upgrades to the Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago were $20 million.
- Associated costs with family business trips to run the Trump brand are likely to be a minimum of $1 million.
We therefore estimate that the Trump’s lifestyle will cost the American taxpayers $142 million in 2017, and upwards of $100 million for each year thereafter. All told, a four-year term would cost just over $440 million. To be fair, that is a lot less than the doomsday predictions of over $1 billion, and somewhat less than half a billion. Still, it is a hard pill to swallow.
Why so many Americans find this so offensive
All Presidents travel. Their family receives protection. There was plenty of mud being slung at President Obama for his vacations, although the total for all eight years came to about $85 million. That is, by our estimates, roughly the cost we will incur for just one year of Trump’s weekenders to Florida.
There’s no forensics needed to sleuth out why Americans are upset, and why so many people care about this number. It is hard to erase from the collective conscious that each trip he takes to his estate, each trip his sons take for his companies, the increased rent that Trump Towers is charging, all translate into money that will eventually flow back into his pockets. The American public is paying the bill for him to make even more money.
But the coup de grace, as it were, is his proposed budget, which demands that almost every program we run go on a starvation diet of austerity, while the Trump family jaunts around the world being kept in the manner to which they are accustomed.
That isn’t just insulting. It is “unpresidented.”
Update added in press: After we made our estimates, the Washington Post reported that they obtained a Secret Service document showing the request for $60 million additional this year. Of that, $26.8 million is designated for residential security for Trump towers, protection of his children, grandchildren, advance teams, and intelligence gathering. Roughly $12.5 million of it was marked for “personnel related costs in New York.” The other $33 million was for travel costs by “the president, vice president and other visiting heads of state.” Certainly, only part of that will go to Trump himself, and only part of that is for his extra-curricular travel. So it probably comes to around the same $40 million that we estimated above.
Featured image from YouTube