NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Sarah Chaulk says she remains “extremely bitter” about how much taxpayer money was spent on President Barack Obama’s travel and family vacations during his time in office.
“When Obama put his dog on Air Force One and then told us to give more to help poor people, it was a slap in the face to the entire country,” Chaulk, 60, a graphic designer from Columbus, Ohio, said on Wednesday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the marquee annual gathering for conservative activists.
Her friend Elaine Kent, 58, chimed in: “And when Michelle Obama and her friends went to Spain and spent millions of dollars on a vacation? They did so much nickel-and-diming of taxpayers."
They are less concerned — which is to say, not concerned at all — with recent reports that suggest President Trump cost taxpayers nearly as much in his first month in office as Obama did in a year. Their sentiments were widely shared here at CPAC, where attendees gave a wide array of explanations for why they were outraged by Obama’s travel spending but not Trump’s.
“Mr. Obama went on so many vacations and played golf every week. The news media can say, ‘Trump went to Mar-a-Lago,’ and their hair catches on fire. But if they will look at this honestly — and I’m all for the truth — they’ll see Trump is just using his own resources and money to take care of things,” Chaulk said. “It doesn’t bother me one bit.”
Over the course of the Obama administration, outrage over the president’s travel expenses became a major talking point in right-wing circles. Though debunked by fact-checkers, one rumor claimed that first pup Bo Obama got his own personal flight to join the family in Hawaii. Another faulted Michelle Obama for her allegedly lavish Spanish getaway — though the Obamas personally paid for the bulk of its expenses.
Since taking office, Trump appears to have opened himself up to similar attacks. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s three trips to Mar-a-Lago have already cost a combined $10 million — compared with Obama’s average annual travel budget of $12 million. The Post reported that the first family’s “unusually elaborate lifestyle” poses massive new logistical hurdles, creating new strains on the Secret Service that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Of course, the accusation of politically motivated reasoning — of dismissing conclusions that hurt your preferred party, candidate, or ideology — isn't limited to any part of the American political spectrum. It's nothing new, or particular to conservatives, for partisans to fit inconvenient facts into their preexisting narratives.
As Vox's Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz have written, research has found that people are remarkably adept at fitting new information to existing frameworks or beliefs:
We are often guided by our emotions and deeply held biases. Humans are also very adept at ignoring facts so that we can continue to see the world in a way that conforms to our preconceived notions. And simply stating factual information that contradicts those deeply held beliefs is often not enough to combat the spread of misinformation. And, frustratingly, research finds the more knowledgeable we are about politics, the more stubborn we get on politically charged topics. We use our smarts to protect the our political groups, and not to grapple with uncomfortable truths.
CPAC attendees: We don’t believe Trump’s trips are costing more than Obama’s
On Wednesday, more than a dozen CPAC attendees greeted those reports with skepticism, hostility, and, in few occasions, mild concern.
Overwhelmingly, the most common reason they cited was that they didn’t trust the underlying story — because they didn’t trust the press to tell the truth.
Donald Ely, 83, a Pennsylvania Republican Party official, had heard the stories of Trump’s travel expenses. But he wasn’t sure he could trust them.
“I resented Obama going to all these places overseas, particularly because his agenda was anti-American,” Ely said. “But the way people make up the stories about the Trumps, I don’t know if I believe it. I don’t think it’s accurate.”
Similarly, Arthur Herstein, 74, a writer from Bowie, Maryland, said he was frustrated by Obama’s “over-the-top” vacation and travel expenses.
Still, Herstein said he doesn’t believe it’s the case that Trump is on pace to spend more on vacation and travel. He waved away a Washington Post story held up on a reporter’s phone.
“I believe that the story exists,” Herstein said. “But the facts in it can’t possibly be right. That absolutely can’t be right. How did Trump spend $10 million in one month and Obama spent $11 million in a year? It defies logic.”
Of course, the idea that Trump and his supporters are frustrated by the media is nothing new. But some CPAC attendees’ distrust of even government institutions ran strikingly deep.
“I don’t trust the bookkeepers. I don’t trust the people who say, ‘This president spent X and this president spent Y,’” said Roy Postel, 58, a real estate developer from near Chicago. “The whole bureaucracy is against Trump, so I’d like to know who is getting greased to tell us what Obama spent. I wouldn’t trust anyone with an estimate of what the Trump administration has spent on travel.”
CPAC attendees: Trump gave up a lot to become president
When not blaming the news media, other conservatives at CPAC turned to different explanations for why Trump’s travel tab would outpace Obama’s.
Grace Germany, sporting an “Adios Obama” pin, said she was bothered that the Obamas would take a vacation with a “humongous entourage with all of their friends — and their friends’ friends — at taxpayer expense.”
She said it would bother her if Trump did the same, but that there’s no evidence he had so far. Asked about the Mar-a-Lago trips, Germany responded that they’re different because the Trump family is accustomed to staying in the Florida home — whereas, she said, the Obamas only started taking lavish trips once in office.
“That is what they had beforehand,” Germany said.
Like many others, Germany also pointed to Trump’s pledge to refuse the president’s $400,000 salary (one that appears to be true, even if it strikes critics as a stunt). If Trump was using taxpayer money for expensive travel, she reasoned, why wouldn’t he be taking the salary?
“You have to recognize that he’s not even taking a salary,” she said. “He’s not doing this for money.”
Kent, of Ohio, also argued that Trump’s weekend getaways to Mar-a-Lago don’t amount to vacations, since he’s held some official meetings and press conferences while at his Florida home.
“When they say ‘Mar-a-Lago,’ that’s not a vacation. He’s wearing suits — he’s clearly working,” Kent says. “It stuns me that they say he’s ‘on vacation.’ I say, ‘What vacation?’”
To be sure, not everyone at CPAC dismissed criticisms of Trump’s travel expenses out of hand. In particular, the three youngest attendees interviewed — all under 30 — admitted to being concerned.
For instance, Ryan Errotabere, a 24-year-old wearing a Make America Great Again hat, said he could be troubled by the news but needed to see more. “I’d approach it the same way if a government corporation was spending too much money,” agreed Coleman Theodore, 19, of Charleston, South Carolina. “We shouldn’t be spending tens of millions of dollars traveling on vacations.”
But among the older CPAC attendees, the story tended to be simpler: Obama had ripped off taxpayers to travel abroad, and there was no reason to believe Trump was doing the same.
David Goodrige, a conservative who came from Australia for this year’s CPAC, said Obama “spent an unbelievable amount of money,” including multiple jets and helicopters. But whereas Trump had to pay for his family in New York to fly to Florida, Obama’s family lived in DC, Goodridge said.
“With Barron and Melania in New York, Trump has to have a much more diverse security detail, and that’s going to be more expensive,” Goodridge said. “If Obama had Sasha and Malia in New York, you’d see a similar security expense.”