PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump relishes the comforts of his Mar-a-Lago estate for repeated weekends away from Washington, but former Secret Service and intelligence officials say the resort is a security nightmare vulnerable to both casual and professional spies.
While Trump’s private club in South Florida has been transformed into a fortress of armed guards, military-grade radar, bomb sniffing dogs and metal-detection checkpoints, there are still notable vulnerabilities, namely the stream of guests who can enter the property without a background check.
And security experts warn that the commander in chief’s frequent visits — four since he took office in January — afford an unprecedented opportunity for eavesdropping and building dossiers on the president’s routines and habits, as well as those of the inner circle around him. They add that with each repeat visit, the security risk escalates.
“The president is the biggest, richest intelligence target in the world, and there is almost no limit to the energy and money an adversary will spend to get at him,” said David Kris, a former Obama-era assistant attorney general for national security.
Former Secret Service agents said the setup at Mar-a-Lago and the president’s other regular clubs presents challenges that their agency wasn’t built to deal with. The Service’s main job is to protect the president from physical threats and monitoring for wiretaps and other listening devices — but not from the kinds of counterespionage challenges presented by the president’s choice to eat, sleep and work at a club accessible to anyone who can get a member to invite them in.
“Whose responsibility is it to prevent foreign intelligence? That’s a very good question that remains unanswered,” said one former Secret Service agent. “Is it the FBI? They’re not involved in protection. It’s not the CIA because they can’t spy on U.S. citizens.”
At the White House, visitors must undergo a rigorous background screening before they’re let in the door. Agents scan every visitor’s full name, birth date, Social Security number, city of residence and country of birth.
But at Mar-a-Lago, gaining entry doesn’t require that degree of disclosure. Guests entering the club go through multiple security checkpoints staffed by the Secret Service looking for weapons or other immediate threats. But there’s only one requirement to produce a photo ID, and the club itself does not ask guests to provide their names or other information when they enter through the main wrought-iron gated door.
The club also serves as a venue for ticketed public events. Hosts for the slate of political and charity dinners booked at the president’s part-time home from now to the end of the club’s season in May told POLITICO the only request for information about attendees has come from the club itself. And all they’re asked to provide is a name, not additional information that can be used for Secret Service background checks in the event the president is in residence.
“One could send a source to attend and report on atmospherics, the buzz, attendees, rumors, etc.,” Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and former director of national intelligence, wrote in an email.
Spies don’t even need to physically go to Mar-a-Lago to do their work. Lists of the club's nearly 500 exclusive dues-paying members haveleaked in recent weeks to the news media, giving foreign intelligence the names of potential targets for surveillance, blackmail or bribes that can help them get closer to the president.