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Are the unprecedented demands of protecting the Trumps straining the Secret Service?

April 6, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
The U.S. Secret Service has protected presidents and their families for more than a century. But rarely has it had to go so many places and protect so many people than it has for President Trump. John Yang speaks with presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Politico’s Ken Vogel about the strains being placed on the secret service in order to protect the Trump family.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: President Trump’s summit with China’s president at his Florida resort is the president’s sixth trip to Mar-a-Lago since taking office.

But some are asking about the stresses and strains being placed on the Secret Service to protect him and his family at their multiple homes.

John Yang has the story.

JOHN YANG: In the more than a century that the U.S. Secret Service has protected presidents and their families, rarely has it had so many places and so many people to guard than under President Trump, not just the White House, but also Trump Tower in the heart of Manhattan, still home for first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, although the president has not been there since taking office.

And Mr. Trump has requested protection for his adult children and their spouses, White House advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and the president’s eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who travel the world on family business.

Evy Poumpouras is a former Secret Service agent who helped protect four presidents.

EVY POUMPOURAS, Former U.S. Secret Service Agent: One of the things here that is a concern, you have got three sites, three static sites.

Before, with prior presidents, you really just had to worry about the White House itself. But with these three different sites, you’re almost having to recreate a permanent protection residence. You’re going to have to double your resources. You’re going to have to double your efforts. You’re going to have to double your manpower.

JOHN YANG: While the Secret Service rarely details the cost of protecting presidents and their families, media reports and past government estimates provide some clues.

A single weekend trip to Mar-a-Lago costs taxpayers an estimated $3 million. The Washington Post, citing internal documents, said the Secret Service is requesting an additional $60 million for next year, nearly $27 million to secure Trump Tower.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Miss.: I’m deeply concerned that the Secret Service is being stretched to its breaking point.

JOHN YANG: Senator Claire McCaskill, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I’m concerned about the Secret Service and the unprecedented challenge of protecting the president and his family at numerous locations, the White House, Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, as well as the international travel by the president’s sons.

JOHN YANG: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defends President Trump’s trips.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: President Bush traveled to Crawford. President Obama went to Hawaii often. This is not something that you can control. There is a security aspect that the Secret Service determines when the president and the family travels. That’s not dictated by the president of the United States.

JOHN YANG: Evy Poumpouras says there simply aren’t enough agents.

EVY POUMPOURAS: To help with this demand in manpower, you tend to go outside of the normal presidential protective detail. Then you pull in agents from across the country. You are, though, in fact, pulling them away from other duties.

JOHN YANG: In Florida, local law enforcement is feeling the strain, especially when Mr. Trump meets foreign leaders like the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw:

RIC BRADSHAW, Palm Beach County Sheriff: If we were just doing the president up at Mar-a-Lago, it’s around $60,000 to $70,000 a day. You can double that right now. And that’s not including all the other security measures that we’re taking with fencing and some barriers and stuff like that. That’s an additional cost.

JOHN YANG: Costs that the county would like the federal government to help pay.

For more on what it costs to protect the president and how this commander in chief compares to his predecessors, I am joined by Ken Vogel, the chief investigative reporter for Politico, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Gentlemen, thanks to you both.

Ken, let me start with you.

We heard in the spot the former Secret Service agent talking about the challenges in terms of manpower and planning or protecting three residences, essentially. What are some of the other challenges the Secret Service has to deal with in not just the White House, but Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago?

KEN VOGEL, Politico: Well, Trump Tower, obviously, in the middle of Manhattan, one of the most densely populated areas in the country, a lot of challenges around there related to not just the president’s own security, but interfacing with the community writ large.

They stop traffic fairly regularly outside Trump Tower. But Mar-a-Lago is the big one. When I talk to law enforcement and Secret Service sources, they repeatedly raise the myriad of concerns that stem from having a private membership club where members continue to come in and out and interface with the president, including during some of these incredibly sensitive sort of forums where you have foreign leaders coming in.

We saw the example with the Japanese prime minister and the North Korean sort of mini-crisis there, where they were handling it in the middle of sort of an outdoor porch-type setting, because these people took pictures of it and tweeted them.

It was jokingly referred to as an open-air Situation Room. So you had people who are coming and going there. You don’t have the normal types of background checks that are required to get into a sort of closed space where you would potentially rub shoulders with the president at Mar-a-Lago.

And then, additionally, you have, you know, the risk of people that you have, you know, charity functions there where you have people who are not even members who are coming in and potentially sitting down at a table right next to the president to eat from the same buffet that the president is eating from.

I mean, that’s really unheard of. And that creates a lot of potential risks that the Secret Service cringes at. And they have to work with the local police, as well as the private security at Mar-a-Lago. And it’s just an unprecedented situation that adds a number of layers of risk that you don’t typically see.

JOHN YANG: Michael, help us put this into context. How does this compare to other presidents? You have had — President Nixon had homes in California and in Florida. Presidents Bush and Johnson had ranches in Texas. How does this compare?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, none of them had a private club of the kind that Ken described with the open-air Situation Room.

But, you know, you did have, for instance, John Kennedy went to Palm Beach to his parents’ house or another house in Palm Beach every weekend, went up to Hyannis Port, too.

And public has generally had the feeling it’s important to protect the president, important to protect his family, especially against kidnapping or blackmail. And so, therefore, people generally feel that you have to spend whatever is necessary, especially in a time of terrorism.

But the time that there was the beginning of the backlash was 1973, Richard Nixon and Watergate. There were revelations that Nixon had had the government pay for improvements to his house in California, San Clemente, his swimming pool, allegedly for security reasons. And, actually, that really hurt him, because a lot of persons who didn’t understand the fine points of obstruction of justice, they certainly understood using government money to improve your pool.

So, ever since then, there has been a lot of sensitivity.

JOHN YANG: But also, with President Trump, he has grown children who have business interests around the world, and they’re traveling for those business interests. How does that compare?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s the problem. And there is a view, you can even hear it on talk radio these days, of these sons who are going around the world swaggering with their big Secret Service detail, making a lot of money.

The problem with that is, is, God forbid, you know, let’s not talk about them. Let’s say if you had a presidential family member who was kidnapped for ransom, making demands of a president to do certain things to get his child out. That’s a situation you never want. And that’s why we probably want presidential families protected pretty closely.

JOHN YANG: Ken, what about the staff? There are a number of staff members who have been assigned details — or requested details by the president, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway, people like that.

KEN VOGEL: Yes, that’s right.

And while there are those decisions about whether to grant the protection are driven by very legitimate security concerns and a very careful assessment of the necessity of this, nonetheless, there is a sense, particularly in Washington, where we’re extremely status-conscious, that this is something, a detail is sort of the ultimate status symbol.

And so you have jealousy and resentment among other White House staffers, some very recognizable folks in their own right, who do not have the Secret Service protection. We saw Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, at an Apple store accosted by a woman who filmed herself kind of asking antagonistic questions of Sean Spicer.

Well, does that warrant Secret Service protection? Spicer evidently didn’t think so. He hasn’t requested it. There’s no indication that he would have it. So, why do some of these other folks have it?

I tend to agree with Michael that, in situations like this, the protection of having, ensuring the safety of both the president, his family, in some cases key staffers who face threats, are the most important things.

But, per the Secret Service agent who you talked to, the former agent in the intro piece, there are concerns about spreading the Service too then. There’s only so many people who can have protection, and the protection would stay at that consistently excellent level, professional level that the Secret Service is known for.

JOHN YANG: And, of course, Secret Service asking for more money.

Michael Beschloss, Ken Vogel, thanks very much for joining us.

KEN VOGEL: Thank you.

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