t’s never easy for a new president to transition into his security bubble, but Donald Trump comes with unconventional protection challenges — including his active Twitter life — that are testing the Secret Service in unpleasant and costly ways.
Trump’s free-flowing tweets have invited more threats than his security detail can keep pace to investigate. On top of that, he’s been telegraphing his movements for the bad guys by establishing regular travel patterns in his first 100 days in office. And his very famous family is jetting around the world, draining the resources of a bureau still gasping from the frenzied pace of the 2016 campaign.
All presidents live in a target-rich environment — agents often talk of mentally-ill people approaching the White House gates making threats against long-gone leaders like Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. But law enforcement experts say the new Republican president has particularly upped his exposure levels through Twitter, with the missives emanating from his phone giving the masses the impression they can correspond directly with Trump.
“The Twitter thing is creating a lot of hassles,” said Dan Bongino, a former protective detail agent for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “It’s generated a tidal wave of threats that the Secret Service can’t ignore.”
Bongino, who has written a book on the Secret Service’s challenges in protecting Trump that’s scheduled for publication later this summer, said the Secret Service is ill-equipped to make its way through all the social media threats. It can’t tell Trump to stop tweeting. And it also is still haunted by the example of Sara Jane Moore, a woman who attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 months after the Secret Service evaluated her but found she wasn’t a threat.
“It’s an arithmetic impossibility to interview every single person who sends a threat. It’s not possible,” he said. “By necessity they have to triage what’s credible and what’s not and it’s tough to do by just looking at a 140-character tweet.”
Another big challenge in protecting Trump — codenamed “Mogul” to commemorate his billionaire business background — starts with the way he’s been traveling around the country. While the president has managed to keep hotel costs down by spending all his nights since inauguration at either the White House or his South Florida seaside retreat, it’s the recurring weekend trips to his private Mar-a-Lago club that are giving current and former Secret Service agents some pause.
“I used to joke if we don’t know where we’re going then the jackal doesn’t either,” Bongino said. “Patterns always hurt.”
The Secret Service — battered by years of bad public relations tied to fence jumpers, prostitutes and the lowest morale of any government sub-agency — is also spread painfully thin as it acclimates to the Trump era.
A third of the New York field office’s 200-plus staffers are being pulled on any given day from their regular duties, including criminal investigations, to protect the Trump family members based in Manhattan, including Melania Trump and 11-year old Barron Trump in Trump Tower, and adult sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. Agents are also being flown in from other stations around the country to work on the Trump family detail.
While family members of past presidents have also enjoyed the same types of Secret Service protection when away from Washington — Chelsea Clinton at Stanford and Bush’s twins attending the University of Texas and Yale — law enforcement experts have struggled to come up with anything comparable to the combination of a first lady living full time away from the White House’s protective umbrella, plus two adult sons who have such high-profile positions leading a company that also carries the president’s trademark last name.
“Figuring out what a college kid is going to do, as opposed to a guy who has businesses in Saudi Arabia, logistically it’s much more complicated,” said former Secret Service agent Patrick O’Carroll, now the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
The costs for protecting Trump and his family outside Washington are taking a toll on the bureau.
Law enforcement sources say it’s only a matter of time before more permanent security protections will need to be added at some of the Trump properties beyond the White House that the president most frequently calls home. Those additions will carry a price tag — for installation and routine maintenance — and will likely be needed at Mar-a-Lago, Trump Tower and the president’s Bedminster, New Jersey, private golf club that’s expected to serve as a regular summer getaway spot.
“Otherwise it’s going to look like a tent city,” said Bill Pickle, a former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service.
The Washington Post reported in March that the service had asked the Trump White House to approve an extra $60 million into its roughly $2 billion initial budget, with nearly half that amount going toward protecting Trump Tower. A specific line-item mentioning Trump’s personal security needs ultimately didn’t appear in the request sent last month to Capitol Hill, leaving budget watchers to predict some of the money will surface either in the next iteration of a continuing resolution or perhaps later this summer should the Homeland Security Department need to spend more money than it is authorized to spend.
“Congress is going to have to come up with a big number that they’re not anticipating to cover all these costs,” said Chris Cummiskey, the former Obama-era acting undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security.
The costs for protecting the Trump family during their international travel also remains a sore spot. CBS reported earlier this month that the Secret Service’s international travel costs connected to protecting Eric and Donald Trump Jr. — for just hotels and car rentals on trips to the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, United Kingdom, Ireland, Dubai and Canada — had surpassed $190,000 since the start of the year.
But this is tricky political terrain, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders has said he’ll probe the costs of protecting Trump’s adult children as they move around the world through his perch as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. But prominent Democrats have also spoken up that there shouldn’t be a debate about the Secret Service detail for Trump’s sons. “The President’s family’s protection should not be politicized,” Chelsea Clinton wrote earlier this month on Twitter.
Costs aside, Douglas Smith, who served as an Obama administration assistant secretary of homeland security, said the Secret Service agents on the Eric and Donald Trump Jr. details are hard-pressed to do their job with the resources they have. “International travel puts a tremendous strain on the Secret Service,” he said. “Agents traveling the world with the Trump boys, it’s a lot of stress. Their responsibility is exactly the same. But they get a whole lot less infrastructure to do what they need to do.”
The Secret Service also has other Trump-related issues to monitor. While the Trump Organization’s private security arm is responsible for protecting its properties around the globe – from its hotels and condominiums to golf courses – law enforcement sources say the Secret Service shouldn’t ignore those kinds of threats either. “I know I’d want to know about it,” said one former senior Secret Service agent.
Like all new administrations, Trump and his staff are still learning the ropes of what comes with being enveloped in security protection at all hours and with all their movements.
Law enforcement sources say Trump’s White House staff has developed a reputation in the Secret Service for herky-jerky scheduling that can add costs to the agency’s operations. For example, they’ve abruptly canceled at least three in-the-works presidential trips — two to Trump Tower and one last weekend to Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf club — that agents had started doing advance preparations work for.