Trump’s two homes costing millions for Secret Service to protect

President Donald Trump has spent five of the first nine weekends of his presidency at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
President Donald Trump has spent five of the first nine weekends of his presidency at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

President Trump’s multiple residences and travels are proving to be expensive, prompting the U.S. Secret Service to up its annual budget by tens of millions of dollars.

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The Secret Service has requested $60 million in additional funding for next year, according to a report Wednesday by the Washington Post. According to the Post, about half of that — $26.8 million— would go toward protecting President Trump’s family and home in Trump Tower in New York, where first lady Melania lives with their 11-year-old son Barron.

The remaining $33 million would cover travel costs for “the president, vice president and other visiting heads of state.”

It’s likely a chunk of that $33 million will go toward trips to Palm Beach. Trump has spent five of the first nine weekends of his presidency at his Mar-a-Lago home, an oceanfront estate in Palm Beach. Those trips are estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $3 million per trip, according to Politico.

Palm Beach residents will feel the increase traffic problems when U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, visits his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago home as president.

Trump’s frequent trips to Palm Beach are taking a financial toll not only on the federal government, but on Palm Beach County. County officials have said the sheriff’s office has spent more than $1.5 million on overtime for deputies guarding Trump’s estate. County administrators have raised the possibility of raising property taxes or cutting services to meet costs if the federal government won’t reimburse the county.

A federal law on the books since 1976 was designed to restrict some costs of a traveling president. The law requires Secret Service protectees to choose only one non-governmental residence to be their primary residence.

Former president Gerald Ford signed the Presidential Protection Assistance Act into law in 1976. The law capped spending on residences after the primary residence at $10,000 (it has since been raised to $200,000). The Secret Service must seek Congressional authorization for spending greater than that cap.

Florida, the presidential getaway

Presidents leave the White House regularly, whether for vacations or campaign trips or state visits. When they do, they have to be protected, both by the Secret Service and by local law enforcement. Providing that protection comes with the territory of electing presidents who come from, and have homes, all over the country.

Florida, with its warm weather and beaches, has garnered a substantial share of those out-of-the-White-House visits.

“The good weather, the water, and the fishing here have really brought a lot of presidents to the area,” says Paul George, a former Miami Dade College history professor and an expert on South Florida history.

George can name eight presidents in the past 100 years who have spent a lot of time in Florida: Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and now Donald Trump. But for him, there’s one who stands out.

Nixon’s legacy

“Because of the Winter White House, the person who had the most indelible imprint here was Richard Nixon, by far,” he says.

It was Nixon who prompted the Presidential Protection Assistance Act.

Nixon owned a 1950s, concrete-block ranch home at 500 Bay Lane in Key Biscayne. It became known as the “Winter White House.” When the Watergate scandal unfolded, Nixon spent a lot of time there.

In 1969, Nixon bought the “Western White House,” a home in San Clemente, California.

The combined cost of securing both homes — more than $1 million, according to a General Accounting Office report —prompted Congress to limit this kind of spending.

The cost of securing a president

The Secret Service is tight-lipped about how much it costs to secure a private residence.

The agency’s total budget for fiscal year 2016 was about $2.2 billion, and a Secret Service spokeswoman told Politico that $871.7 million of it was budgeted for “protecting persons and places.”

Jim Helminski, a former Secret Service agent and regional director, also wouldn’t go into specifics — but he did say $200,000 to secure a residence is a “relatively low number.”

Helminski is familiar with the Presidential Protection Assistance Act. He says it comes into play early on in a presidential administration, as new presidents choose their primary residences. Sometimes, he says, they’re chosen by default – if a president spends more nights at one location outside the White House than any other, the Secret Service will presume it’s their primary residence and will pay for it accordingly.

The roughly $3 million for each Mar-a-Lago trip comes from a GAO report. The report, requested by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, calculated it cost $3.6 million for a four-day trip to Florida and Illinois that President Obama took in 2013. Except for the Chicago detour, the trip was the same as a recent trip by Trump to Palm Beach.

With Trump’s frequent visits to Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is seeing hefty bills.

Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker says county officials can’t calculate exactly how much each visit costs Palm Beach County until they have more data. She was able to give one firm number – $60,000 to $65,000 in overtime costs for each day of a presidential visit. The sheriff’s office doesn’t want to pull officers off their regular beats to provide protection to the president, so it pays other officers overtime to work on their days off.

For now, the sheriff can pay those costs out of his budget. In the long run, Baker is optimistic that the county will be reimbursed by the federal government. She says the county’s vice mayor and commissioner brought it up at the National Association of Counties meeting in Washington last month, and that Rep. Lois Frankel (D-West Palm Beach) is spearheading a push for reimbursement.

In the meantime, Baker says, there are financial upsides to the president’s frequent visits. Journalists from the White House Press Corps follow him to Mar-a-Lago, and they eat at local restaurants and shop at local businesses. There’s also the public relations boost.

“Those are household impressions we can’t afford to purchase,” she says. “When it’s cold and rainy and the weather is horrible in other places, to be broadcasting from Palm Beach County...what can you say, you can’t pay for that.”

The Trump case

The Trumps have been spending their time outside the White House at two residences – Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.

University of Miami law professor Charlton Copeland says this unusual presidential living situation might give the Trumps an out. The Presidential Protection Assistance Act says two or more people domiciled together are considered one protectee, and can only choose one primary residence between them. But the Trumps aren’t really living together.

Copeland can’t say for sure whether this means the Trumps get to designate both Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, but he says it’s possible.

“It seems to me that they would have a right under the statute to each designate a non-governmental property for a full Secret Service detail on a permanent basis.”

Congress’s final say

If the Secret Service needs to spend more than $200,000 on successive residences, the agency can go to Congress for approval. Helminski says they’re likely to get it – the president has to be protected, after all.

“You have to provide for the protection of these protectees – the whole purpose of this act is not whether you agree with President Trump or not,” he says. “It deals with the continuity of government, and allowing for the security of the president and the vice president.”

What might come into play is the optics of the Trumps’ trips outside the White House.

“A president has to understand that if the voting public starts seeing that they’re spending more time on vacation than in the White House representing the American people, they could rightfully get upset about it,” Helminski says.

So it might not be the law that truly restricts Trump’s residences, but the court of public opinion.