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WASHINGTON — There is nothing like a little Mediterranean beach vacation to unwind. Unless you happen to travel with dozens of Secret Service agents, trailed by photographers and dogged by controversy.
Michelle Obama hoped to enjoy a quiet summer break in southern Spain with her younger daughter and a few friends. But the Andalusian getaway has gotten away from her as the European media document her every flamenco dance step and critics back home question the wisdom of such a lavish vacation, which involves at least some taxpayer money, in a time of austerity.
As Mrs. Obama and her entourage toured the picturesque southern city of Ronda on Saturday, the blogosphere has been filled with commentary about what many saw as a tone-deaf trip in the same week the United States reported the loss of 131,000 more jobs. “A modern-day Marie Antoinette,” scolded a New York Daily News columnist.
The White House was reluctant to discuss Mrs. Obama’s trip. The only official comment came from Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, at a briefing last week when he said that Mrs. Obama “is a private citizen and is the mother of a daughter on a private trip. And I think I’d leave it at that.”
Privately, officials note that the first lady is paying for her own room, food and transportation, and the friends she brought will pay for theirs as well. The government pays for security, and the Secret Service, not the first lady, determines what is needed.
Officials said some reports of the trip had been exaggerated. Mrs. Obama is not traveling with 40 friends, one official said, but with two friends and four of their daughters, as well as a couple of aides and a couple of advance staff members. The staff is with her because she will pay a courtesy call on King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía on the island of Majorca on Sunday before flying home to Washington.
Every first lady in modern times has flown on government planes with a sizable security detail, and it is hard to pinpoint the cost to taxpayers. The Air Force jet she flew costs $11,351 per hour to operate, according to several reports, meaning a 14-hour round trip would cost nearly $160,000. The first lady would reimburse only the equivalent of first-class commercial tickets for herself and her daughter Sasha, the rest of the seats being occupied mainly by Secret Service. Officials said their friends flew on separate commercial flights.
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