But our eyebrows went up when we saw this tweet by a liberal-leaning veterans group — retweeted or liked by more than 50,000 people — because it offered such a precise number, to the dollar: $72,181,957. We often warn readers about false precision and decided to examine how this was calculated.
Doug Gordon, a spokesman for VoteVets, said the information came from a website called TrumpGolfCount.com, maintained by a self-described “data junkie” named Sophie Germain. The website tracks every trip to a golf club made by Trump and offers a total estimate for the cost of the trips. Germain did not respond to our queries. The website currently has a slightly higher number: $72,251,706.
While VoteVets says Trump has spent “123 days golfing,” the website says that there are only 59 days when Trump was confirmed to have golfed, as the White House is generally secretive about whether the president has golfed while visiting one of his golf-club properties. Using data compiled by our colleague Philip Bump, she calculates that Trump has likely golfed on 110 days. That’s a lot closer to 123, but it’s still short.
But the biggest problem is the website’s estimate of the cost to taxpayers.
About $45 million of the $72 million total comes from an estimate of the cost of Air Force One flights to Mar-a-Lago in Florida and Bedminster, N.J. Germain’s numbers appear based on about four hours of flying back and forth to Florida and 1.5 hours back and forth to New Jersey, at a cost of $518,000 an hour.
Germain cites another Bump article for this $518,000 figure, but that came from what Bump called “a very loose estimate” early in the administration, based on travel by Obama, and it turned out to be too high. (The author of a Government Accountability Office report on Obama’s travel later told the AP that the figures in that report could not be used to calculate the cost of Trump’s travel because Obama included a stop that required additional support equipment.) The GAO report indicated there was a cost for support aircraft to accompany any president, but that figure is unknown in Trump’s case.
The Air Force, in a letter to Judicial Watch in May 2017 about a round of golf that Trump played at Mar-a-Lago with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said that the cost per hour of flying Air Force One in fiscal year 2017 was $142,380. (That was a reduction from $206,337 in fiscal year 2015.) With total flying of slightly more than four hours, that added up to about $600,000 for that particular trip.
The revised numbers would drop the $45 million cost of flying to around $12 million. As we noted, the figure for additional logistics and support is unknown.
Update, Feb. 5, 2019: The Government Accountability Office released a report looking only at Trump’s first four trips to Mar-a-Lago as president: on Feb. 3-6; Feb. 10-12; Feb. 17-20; and March 3-5, 2017. It concluded the total cost was just under $14 million, for an average cost of $3.4 million per trip. Given that Trump has made 19 trips, Bump concluded the government has spent more than $64 million on Trump’s trips to the resort. Just looking at flying, the cost would be about $40 million — close to what Germain calculated.]
The website also includes $16 million for the expense of guarding the coast off Mar-a-Lago, also extrapolated from a 2017 Washington Post report, as well as security costs to local governments that are reimbursed by the federal governments. More recently, Germain added numbers from newspaper accounts for Trump’s trip to his property in Turnberry, Scotland, such as an estimated $1.3 million of the cost of luxury car rental. But that’s pretty standard for a presidential trip overseas.
[Update, Feb. 5, 2019: The GAO report indicates that 19 trips to Mar-a-Largo cost at least $24 million in security costs.]
A note on the website says that an error in calculation led Germain to cut the number in half in late 2017, from $92 million to $42 million, because she wrongly assumed the local reimbursements were only for golf-related costs, when in fact much was for Trump Tower when Melania Trump stays there. Her error indicates just how flimsy such estimates are and why citing a precise dollar figure can be so misleading.
One can also broadly question whether it is fair to attribute all of the costs of presidential travel and support to a round of golf. Much of the logistical support for a president must follow him wherever he goes, so if the president has one four-hour round of golf in a 24-hour day, is it fair to attribute all of those daily security and logistical costs to that round of golf? We would say no.
The Pinocchio Test
The figures in this tweet are a great example of false precision. We do not know exactly how many days Trump has golfed, and we do not know how much has been paid by taxpayers for his golf outings.
The website cited by VoteVets combines estimates and extrapolations from newspaper reporting and yet suggests the actual figure as known down to the dollar. That’s pretty misleading, especially because the hourly cost of flying the president to his properties appears much too high. Unless actual, confirmed data is available, estimates should never be presented as actual dollar figures.
We know the president likes to play a lot of golf and that travel to his properties is probably expensive. But we don’t know the numbers.
Update: After this fact check was published, Germain wrote The Fact Checker to thank us for the “excellent article,” which she said “make really great points.” She said she would examine more closely the figures used for air travel and would immediately begin using a rounded figure on the website, not a precise dollar amount.
Update, Feb. 5, 2019: In light of the more precise numbers from GAO, we are dropping the Pinocchio rating to One Pinocchio. (Originally, it was Three Pinocchios.) It turns out Germain was in the ballpark with her estimates though she should not have have used such precise numbers — a problem that has now been corrected. But one cannot fairly attribute all of these costs to golf, given the round-the-clock security required for a president.
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