In mid-November 2018, a number of news stories cropped up reporting that First Lady Melania Trump had spent $174,000 on hotel rooms during a day trip to Toronto more than one year earlier. U.S. taxpayers did foot a $174,000 hotel room bill for Melania’s visit, although it was the U.S. State Department that ran up the expenditures and not Mrs. Trump.
On 23 September 2017, Melania Trump led an American delegation on a trip to Canada for the Invictus Games, an Olympic-style competition launched in 2014 by Prince Harry, in which wounded service members compete. While there, the First Lady met with the athletes as well as with Prince Harry and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Federal spending records show that the U.S. State Department paid $174,000 for a series of expenses labeled “HOTEL ROOMS-FLOTUS” made to “miscellaneous foreign awardees” in relation to the trip.
According to the Associated Press, the delegation consisted of then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, professional golfer Nancy Lopez, and entertainer Wayne Newton. It’s unclear if the expenses for the trip covered for the presence of these other personalities as well. (We sent emails seeking comment to the First Lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham ,and the State Department but haven’t received responses to either.)
Most of the stories about the hotel charges were cribbed from a 15 November 2018 report published by the business-oriented news site Quartz, which sourced the data from the government spending tracking tool USASpending.gov. Under the headline “Melania Trump racked up $174,000 in hotel bills for a day trip to Toronto,” Quartz reported:
US first lady Melania Trump ran up a six-figure hotel bill for a one-day trip to Toronto last year, according to federal spending records.
The expenses listed on USASpending.gov don’t specify which hotels were paid, but Quartz pointed to press pool reports that Mrs. Trump had visited the Sheraton and Ritz-Carlton in Toronto for functions during the trip. Quartz also quoted Grisham, who referred to an “advance team” that goes ahead of a visit to make sure the VIP traveler’s concerns are met:
What I can tell you is that when the President or First Lady travels, there are people who travel ahead on the advance team to ensure safety measures, medical care, communications, motorcade needs and logistics are all in place. Mrs. Trump travels with a much smaller contingent of staff than that of her predecessors, but the entities I mentioned above are legally required for all official travel.
But according to Quartz‘s report, expenses associated with the advance team were broken out separately from the $174,000 figure and only totaled a fraction of the trip’s overall hotel room expenses, a discrepancy that was not explained:
The total was roughly eight times what it cost to house the first lady’s advance team, whose $18,000 in hotel expenses were broken out separately; in addition to the hotel charges, the first lady’s trip involved $21,000 in transportation costs.
Quartz reported that when they asked the State Department for further details relating to the expenses, they were instructed to file a Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) request.
A number of news outlets and websites picked up the story, and although some readers were led to believe that the First Lady personally spent $174,000 in taxpayer money at Toronto hotels, that is not the case. A similar controversy cropped up around a $95,000 hotel bill associated with Mrs. Trump’s six-hour stop in Cairo during her October 2018 trip to Africa. As with the expenses in Cairo, the expenditures in Toronto were run up by the State Department prior to the First Lady’s arrival.
The Quartz story also pointed out that First Lady Michelle Obama in 2014 generated a comparable amount in hotel charges during a two-day trip in 2014 to Chengdu, China:
[Obama’s] two-day visit to Chengdu, China, in 2014 cost over $220,000 in hotel bills, the Weekly Standard reported then. The figure included expenses for her advance team, communications staff, and security.
Both Mrs. Trump’s and Mrs. Obama’s travel expenditures have been the sources of scrutiny and controversy. In 2012, for example, conservative media was alight with reports that Mrs. Obama’s trip to Spain with one of her children and the Secret Service in tow cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $470,000.