Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Alles told USA Today that more than 1,000 of his agents, roughly a third of the non-uniformed force, have hit the federally mandated cap for salary and overtime allowances that was already expanded to last the entire year. In addition, long hours and seemingly endless deployments have taken their toll on the service's agents and officers. They are overworked and their morale is low as there is no end in sight to the problem. Even as the Alles tries to hire his way out of the predicament over time, some of the agency's most experienced personnel are choosing to find more agreeable work.
Although the Secret Service has been over-extended for some time, one main reason the problem has morphed into a crisis level issue is President Trump's insistence on traveling to one of his resorts in Florida, Virginia, or New Jersey on most weekends. The President's four jet-set adult children also require protection as well, not just at home but also while traveling on constant trips abroad, many of which are to promote the Trump brand.
Trump is on track to spend more on personal travel in one year than President Obama did in eight years. As of July 5th, Trump had spent roughly 30 percent of his time as President at his own resorts. That percentage has likely only increased since Trump's 17 day vacation just wrapped up, which was mostly spent at his Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey, as well as a couple days at Trump Tower in New York City.
Just protecting Trump Tower, the President's official home, has been a massive and horrendously expensive operation, both for the federal government and for New York City. Some estimates have put the price at $212,000 per day, while other estimates have been much higher, especially while Trump's wife and son were present at the 5th Avenue high-rise.
Even with all his travels, amazingly Trump had not traveled past Iowa as President of the United States until last night when he visited Arizona for a "rally." Still, aside from two trips overseas, all his previous travel had been around America's east, either to a handful of campaign-like events or for "working holidays" at his properties.
Trump's days away from the White House really isn't the main problem, it is the amount of locations Trump calls home. Usually a President has one home, which becomes a highly secured sanctuary of sorts, and they also take a long planned extended vacation elsewhere maybe twice a year. Weekend escapes are the reason Camp David exists—the famous Presidential pre-secured oasis of sorts.
Camp David is operated by the Department of Navy and has year-round staff. Its facilities include hangars for the Presidential helicopters, a major command and control bunker, and most importantly, 200 acres of lodges, cabins, tennis courts, pools, as well as a whole slew of other activities, like clay shooting. It even has a single hole golf course. Located in the hills of Maryland just a helicopter flight away from the White House, it is the ideal place for the President to take a breath of fresh air, relax, and rejuvenate in private.
Surely it sounds like heaven to most anyone, and the place is steeped in American history and the honor of Presidency no less, but for Donald Trump, Camp David is far less than those things.
The President made this notorious quip to a reporter about his intentions of using the official Presidential retreat:
In roughly the first seven months in office, the President has been to Camp David twice. Once for a weekend, which may have more about understanding continuity of government operations nearby than showing true interest in the property, and just last weekend to meet with his national security team about Afghanistan. On last weekend's trip to the facility, Trump didn't even stay the night, instead flying from his Golf Club in Bedminster to Camp David at around 10am and returned back to Bedminster around 6pm that same day.
Protecting Trump's four grown children also isn't a cheap affair because their lifestyles see them travel around the globe promoting the Trump brand and vacationing at expensive locales and in costly hotels. Eric Trump, who runs the Trump Organization with his brother, traveled to Uruguay on business earlier this year, which cost the Secret Service almost $100,000 just for hotel rooms.
Complicating things further, the Secret Service doesn't just have to protect President Trump on a hotel floor or in a house when he travels to his properties, they have to protect large swathes, if not the entirety of the sprawling facilities, including the golf courses that Trump frequents privately when he is there. These are huge and complex security operations which include air, land, and in if nearby water like Mar-a-Lago, water elements.
Sizable amounts of permanent infrastructure and manning has to be left in place at these locales to keep them secure and accessible to the President. This is a very expansive task. USA Today reports the agency has spent $60,000 in golf cart rentals alone for use at Trump's properties since the inauguration.
The situation has become so dire that Director Alles doesn't know how he will pay his agents through the rest of the year. It may take lawmakers to raise the combined salary and overtime cap again for agents from $160,000 to $187,000. Congress already approved supplemental funding for the Secret Service to pay for hours worked over the last year as well and to help reimburse some of the local communities' law enforcement expenditures racked up by Trump's constant getaways. But even if the cap is raised again, the Secret Service may not be able to compensate roughly 130 experienced agents for hundreds of hours already worked.
This may sound like serious money for agents, but the hours they are working are seen as unsustainable on a personal level. The Secret Service recently went through a period mired with numerous embarrassing scandals and firings, but morale even within the elite plain clothes protection units is said to be at an all time low, and the tempo of operations will likely lead to more agents leaving the service which will only exacerbate the overall issue.
Alles doesn't see the tempo letting up anytime soon either, so he plans on hiring his way out of the problem. He told USA Today that from its current size of roughly 6,800 agents and uniform officers, he wants to reach 7,600 by 2019 and 9,500 by 2025. Obviously, with such a large expansion planned in coming years, and with experienced members leaving due to morale and the agency's personnel strain, quality control of its agents and officers will be a major issue. It takes time and money to train a Secret Service member, especially an agent, so the reality is that retaining the experienced people the service already has will be as important as adding new recruits over the coming years.
What's also troubling is that the Secret Service faces a slew of rapidly morphing threats, some of which they have never faced before, such as the danger drones pose to those they protect. And spending all this money on increased personnel makes it harder for the elite agency to acquire new capabilities and personnel trained specifically to help counter emerging threats, not to mention badly needed training aids and equipment.
What's so upsetting about all this is that Trump's weekend getaways are totally frivolous and already cause major concerns over his claims that he has separated himself from his businesses. Not just that but Trump himself pounded on President Obama incessantly for golfing and for taking vacations. He said he would do the opposite if he were elected on numerous occasions, even claiming he wouldn't travel or even golf. These were not just some vacant policy attacks and reflective promises, they were incessant character attacks and personal promises to the American people, and Trump has total control over making good on his end of the bargain. His actions have proven to be so far divorced from his words that it would be totally comical if it weren't so infuriating.
Here is just a sampling of some of Trump's tweets about Obama's vacations and rounds of golf. When the topic came up in interviews over the years his statements were often even more aggressive.
Obama usually golfed at Andrews AFB near Washington DC, not at clubs that take an Air Force One flight and hundreds of support personnel to access. As to the number of golf rounds each have played so far during their presidencies, Trump won't allow reporters near him when he golfs, but clearly he has totally eclipsed the number of golf rounds Obama had played at this point during his time as Commander In Chief. One site, which tracks exactly these metrics, puts Trump at 23 rounds of Golf since taking the Oval Office, whereas Obama had 12 golf rounds under his belt.
I personally could care less how many times the President plays golf. He needs to decompress and enjoy his life a bit in order to be an effective and well calculating leader. But having to fly to Palm Beach or New Jersey to play is ridiculous. And coming from a guy who did nothing but attack his predecessor for what he's now doing to a far larger degree, breaks the hypocritical dam, and it is also breaking the Secret Service in the process.
But the frivolous fiscal waste that these trips represent doesn't just manifest itself in Secret Service overtime or payments to local municipalities, it goes far beyond that. Just the airlift costs involved with these excursions is staggering and not seen by the average person. Air Force One is the USAF's most expensive aircraft to operate, but it is just one facet in a much larger presidential transport mosaic. I stated the following in a previous piece on Air Force One and Donald Trump:
It is estimated that each weekend trip to Mar-A-Lago costs $3.6M, and that number is likely far less than reality, as other variable and fixed costs associated with the location aren't factored in. Nor are the decreased airframe lives of all the aircraft that are used for these "Special Airlift Missions." For a guy that is adamant about cutting government overhead and especially waste, the idea that he is happily burning millions of dollars a weekend so that he can check on his properties and play golf is nausea inducing.
So what can be done? Congress should attempt to regulate these overtly wasteful trips through the power of the purse if need be. That is very unlikely to happen with this congress of course, but it could happen after 2018. At the very least, Trump's abuse of the assets at his fingertips should be used as a reason to pass legislation that limits, even to just a conservative degree, the private travel capacity available to any First Family. A fixed budget of some kind would be helpful. But really, it's depressing and unfortunate we have to even go down such a legislative path in the first place.
For Trump—a man who lived most of his adult life with a personal airliner at his beck and call—this may all seem to be acceptable and normal. But it isn't. It's absurd. And when he traveled privately he paid the bill, but that didn't include hundreds of Secret Service agents, multiple C-17 and C-5 transport flights, the cost of operating Air Force One, and all the expenses of securing multiple luxury resorts and golf clubs with Trump's brand plastered on them. Travel that maybe cost him $60k an outing is costing the American people millions.
In the end, actions speak louder than words. For a guy who says he understands the little guy, loves law enforcement, and understands the value of a buck, all while slamming big government for being wasteful, he sure acts like he could care less about any of of those things by the way he travels. And the men and women of the Secret Service are paying the price personally for his absurd lifestyle more than anyone else. Simply put, it is the opposite of leading by example.
Or as Trump would address the issue via tweet: "Major bait and switch! Look how this guy lives on our dime! And those poor Secret Service agents and their families! Sad."
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