Who pays when President Obama is campaigner in chief

President Barack Obama addresses a campaign event for Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, North Carolina, on July 5, 2016.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Democratic insiders close to President Obama tell CNBC the president is excited to get out on the campaign trail for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Flying Air Force One is not cheap. According to a Freedom of Information Act letter obtained by the nonprofit Judicial Watch, it costs $206,337 every hour Air Force One is in flight.

With that lofty price tag in mind, CNBC asked the Federal Election Commission, the organization that governs the financing of federal elections and enforces the campaign finance laws, who will be footing the bill: the American taxpayer or the Clinton campaign?

Q: When Obama campaigns for Clinton, how will Air Force One or any kind of the government travel and Secret Service associated with the president's campaign work be paid for? Is it the Hillary Clinton Campaign? Is it considered an in-kind contribution? A donation?

FEC: While in office, the president, vice president and first lady each may engage in official, political and campaign-related activities, either separately or in combination. Official expenses are paid by the U.S. government; the costs of political activities are paid by the national party committee and campaign expenses are paid by the candidate's campaign committee.

The party or campaign committee that pays for the political or campaign-related expenses must disclose its payments on reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The White House evaluates travel by the president, vice president and first lady to determine whether it is official or political in nature. Consideration is given to their official duties. Federal laws mandate Secret Service protection and other forms of assistance for all of their travel, including political travel. The costs of these services are assumed by the various government agencies providing them.

To distinguish campaign or political travel from official travel, one must examine the purpose of the trip and the nature of the events or activities at each stop.

Q: So all of the July travel involving the president campaigning for Clinton and her traveling on Air Force One should be itemized in the July FEC filings we will see in August. We will then know how much the campaign has paid back to the government for such use?

FEC: The party or campaign committee that pays for the political or campaign-related expenses must disclose its payments on reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Q: There was some chatter about Clinton traveling on Air Force One with President Obama being unprecedented. No candidate either Democratic or Republican have ever travel on Air Force One to campaign. This is not your average first-class ticket. How does she itemize that cost? Is it considered a charter?

FEC: If a federal candidate travels on a government-owned aircraft, including Air Force One, for campaign purposes, then his or her campaign committee must reimburse the government for the cost of the travel.

The reimbursement rates for government-owned aircraft are specified at 11 CFR 100.93(e), which provides that the government entity providing the aircraft must be reimbursed at one of two rates: (a) the "pro rata share per campaign traveler of the usual and normal charge for the flight on a comparable aircraft of sufficient size to accommodate all campaign travelers" or (b) the "private traveler reimbursement rate." If both rates are available, the traveler may choose which rate to use.

The "pro rata" rate is based on what it would cost to charter a plane with comparable amenities/service/crew, and that is large enough to accommodate all campaign travelers (not only the candidate himself, but also anyone traveling on his behalf, such as campaign staff).

However, the regulation provides that the "comparable aircraft" used to determine the reimbursement rate would not have to accommodate any "government-required personnel and equipment" (for example, Secret Service or National Security Agency officers provided to protect the candidate) or government-required equipment (e.g., bulky security or communications devices provided for the national security or communications needs of the candidate).

The "private traveler reimbursement rate" refers to rates published by some government entities for private travel on government-owned aircraft by members of the public. We do not know whether there is a private traveler reimbursement rate for travel on Air Force One.

Q: What if Obama combines official work with campaigning in one trip?

FEC: When a plane is used for both official and campaign stops, the campaign may therefore pay for the entire trip, or the expenses may be allocated between the campaign and the government entity proportionally, according to formulas set forth in the regulations.

These provisions require costs to be allocated between the two proportionally (i.e., according to how much of the mileage/time is related to each type of travel), rather than equally. These regulations pertain to costs of "travel" generally, so they would cover both the means of transportation and the accommodations.

CNBC will review the Clinton campaign July report filing to check the costs associated with the president's campaigning for Secretary Clinton as well as how much Clinton paid for her travels on Air Force One. A source with the Clinton campaign said, "As is the standard practice, the campaign will cover its portion of the costs."