A fight has broken out between the White House, its defenders and a conservative public watchdog group over first lady Michelle Obama's travel costs and how they are calculated. The dispute stems from a Judicial Watch release yesterday, reported by Whispers, that said the first lady's June goodwill mission to Africa cost $424,142 just for her Air Force C32A.
Judicial Watch said it used Pentagon calculations to come up with the price to taxpayers, multiplying the hourly cost of $12,188 by the number of flight hours, 34.8.
The White House later said that the costs used were exaggerated and included elements typically not included in calculating flight costs.
"The number stated is misconstrued and out of context. The hourly rate is not the marginal cost of operating the plane—it is an accounting figure that prices in a number of fixed costs from maintaining the Air Force fleet for this kind of plane over a year. For example, it includes estimated replacement parts, depreciation, repairs, and costs that would have been incurred regardless of this flight," said an official.
The administration also noted that all first ladies travel on military aircraft. "For security reasons Mrs. Obama must fly on military aircraft," said one official.
What's more, the press watchdog Media Matters assailed Judicial Watch for its cost calculations of the June 21-27 trip that included the two first daughters, Mrs. Obama's mother, hairdresser, and makeup artist. Media Matters belittled Judicial Watch for coming up with "their own 'calculations'" of the trip. The group also hit "dimmer corners of the right-wing media" for covering the Judicial Watch report, based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. [See photos of the Obamas abroad.]
Today, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch fired back with a letter from the Air Force on how costs are calculated. The bottom line: The $424,142 is accurate. What's more, the figures Judicial Watch used from the Air Force were the cheapest of the four rates offered, with one as high as $13,232 per hour. The calculations cover operations and maintenance.
Typically in the past, every administration has been coy about the costs of first family and presidential flights. But Judicial Watch recently received a letter from the Air Force Air Mobility Command concerning flights by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that explains how to come up with the Air Force's costs per flight.
The Air Force has uploaded costs for its aircraft on a website that the public can use to determine flight prices. In the letter, the Air Force advised Judicial Watch to simply go to the website and, "along with the aircraft type and hours flown, you can determine the approximate cost per flight."
In releasing the Air Force letter to Whispers, Fitton said, "The White House is once again trying to play the American people for fools."
Media Matters, meanwhile, called the Judicial Watch report a hit job. "The axe-grinding good-government poseurs at Judicial Watch are in a twist over first lady Michelle Obama's June trip to South Africa and Botswana," they said. "Hatchet-jobs like these are less about good government than they are taking pot-shots at the administration. The first lady's Africa trip was nothing out of the ordinary, but when you cherry-pick a few numbers and gin up the requisite amount of faux-righteous anger, you can turn almost anything into a damaging meme," said the group.