Rarely does a month go by without the emergence of a new Internet meme comparing the presidencies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, typically favoring the former over the latter.
In July 2018, we were alerted to a meme declaring that while President Trump donates all of his salary and First Lady Melania Trump makes do with a small White House staff of four people, President Obama donated none of his salary and First Lady Michelle Obama surrounded herself with a large staff of 23 attendants. “In life there’s givers and takers,” the post concluded. It was straightforward, to the point, and grossly misleading all at the same time:
As for President Trump’s donating all of his presidential salary (as he promised to do during his campaign), to date that is an accurate statement. We reported previously that Trump has so far written a personal check each quarter in an amount equivalent to one-fourth of his annual salary to the following federal agencies: the National Park Service, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Former president Barack Obama, on the other hand, did not convert his entire presidential salary into donations (nor did he promise to), but it’s false to say he donated “none” of it. According to Forbes, President Obama donated some $1.1 million (an amount representing 34% of the $3.2 million aggregate salary he received over eight years in office) to charitable causes during his term in office. This is a partial accounting of those donations:
The biggest recipient was the Fisher House Foundation, which supports families of veterans and received $392,000 from the former commander in chief from 2009 to 2015. That money appears to have come from sales of Obama’s children’s book Of Thee I Sing. Just before entering the White House, Obama finished a manuscript for the book, which he published with Random House. Obama pledged to donate all of his post-tax proceeds from the book to the Fisher House Foundation to support a scholarship fund for children of wounded and fallen soldiers.
He gave away $190,000 more to children’s causes, including $48,000 to Boys & Girls Clubs. He also gave away $19,500 to the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. Another $13,500 went to the Christopher House, a Chicago-based group that supports poor working families. Even after he moved to Washington, Obama remained loyal to his Chicago roots. He poured $11,500 into the Midtown Educational Foundation, which offers enrichment programs to poor urban youth in the Windy City, and he gave $20,500 to two groups fighting hunger in Illinois.
President Obama handed out his own money after national tragedies. He gave $2,000 to a fund for families affected by the Boston bombing in 2013 and another $2,000 to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, which promotes gun control, three years after a shooter terrorized Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Obama gave $5,000 to the Beau Biden Foundation, which supports children’s causes, in 2015, the same year former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, passed away.
President Obama also more than doubled that charitable total by also donating the entire $1.4 million he received as the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to ten different organizations:
– $250,000 to Fisher House, a national nonprofit organization providing accommodation for families of patients receiving medical care at military and Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.
– $200,000 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, which was set up in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake to help survivors.
– $125,000 to College Summit, a national nonprofit organization to increase college enrollment rates.
– $125,000 to the Posse Foundation, which awards scholarships to promising public high school students.
– $125,000 to the United Negro College Fund.
– $125,000 to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
_ $125,000 to the American Indian College Fund.
– $125,000 to the Appalachian Leadership and Education Foundation.
– $100,000 to AfriCare, which promotes health, food security and access to water primarily in Africa.
– $100,000 to the Central Asia Institute, which promotes education and literacy, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Taken together, all those donations represented more than 78% of the total salary President Obama was paid during his time in the White House.
Although President Obama’s donations may have amounted to a lesser percentage of his presidential salary than the 100% President Trump is projected to donate over the course of his presidency, the comparison is a lopsided one unless one takes into account that Trump entered office with a reported net worth in the multi-billions, while the Obamas’ combined wealth was a bare fraction of that. Trump didn’t need his presidential salary, and he said as much — before Trump took office, the only presidents who had donated their entire salaries were John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover, both of whom were also independently wealthy.
The matter of the first ladies’ staff sizes is similarly prone to misrepresentation. A rumor that circulated while the Obamas were still in the White House alleged that Michelle Obama had an “unprecedented” number of staffers working for her, but in fact her staff, which totaled between 22 and 24 employees, was comparable in size to that of Laura Bush during the final year of the George W. Bush administration. (And their staffs paled beside those of Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, each of whom had around 30 employees, and Jackie Kennedy, who reportedly had about 40.)
Things get more complicated when it comes to Melania Trump. For one thing, she didn’t move into the White House until 11 June 2017, five months into her husband’s presidency. For another, she was far less active during her inaugural year as first lady than her immediate predecessors.
Does Melania Trump have a smaller staff than Michelle Obama? Yes, but the disparity is smaller than alleged. The claim that she only has four staff members is based on the 2017 annual report to Congress on White House office personnel. That report does list exactly four staff members whose titles link them directly to the first lady, but it is neither a full nor a current count, for the following reasons:
First, the report was published on 1 July 2017, only slightly more than two weeks after Melania Trump moved into the East Wing. Her staff was skeletal then, at best.
Second, if we apply the same criteria used to arrive at a count of Michelle Obama’s staff, at least two employees who aren’t directly linked to the first lady by title must also be included: special assistant to the president/White House social secretary, and deputy social secretary. Those positions alone bring the total size of Melania Trump’s staff in her first two weeks in the White House to six.
Lastly, for whatever reasons, the annual reports to Congress don’t list the first lady’s entire staff. For example, in January 2018 Melania hired three new employees, but only one of those is accounted for in the 1 July 2018 report.
Statements made to the press by the first lady’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham (who did not respond to our request for an updated list), indicated Melania Trump’s staff numbered nine employees as of October 2017. Her three new hires in January 2018 would have brought that total to 12 staffers — a total still lower than Michelle Obama’s, but triple the mere four claimed of her.
The meme under discussion, therefore, deploys inaccurate numbers and misleading comparisons to portray the Trumps as “givers” and the Obamas as “takers.”
Alexander, Dan. “Obama Donated Over $1 Million to Charity as President. Here’s Where the Money Went.”
Forbes. 6 February 2017.
Beavers, Olivia. “Melania Trump Has Smaller First Lady Staff than Michelle Obama: Report.”
The Hill. 21 October 2017.
Bennett, Kate. “Melania Trump Kicks Off New Year with New Hires.”
CNN. 11 January 2018.
Lima, Cristiano. “Melania Trump Expands Her East Wing Staff.”
Politico. 11 January 2018.
Pappas, Alex. “Melania Trump Cuts Bloated First Lady Payroll from Michelle Obama Days.”
Fox News. 20 October 2017.
Reuters. “Obama Gives $1.4 Million Nobel Prize to 10 Charities.”
11 March 2010.
Sullivan, Kate. “Trump Donates Part of His Salary to Department of Homeland Security.”
CNN. 19 March 2019.