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Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower: Could a federal law force Trump to choose?

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald

Out-of-towners flock to Palm Beach in the winter. The gentle sounds of the sea lapping the shore, the lush green golf courses, the shopping, and the winter temperatures in the 70s and higher attract snowbirds from all over the country.

But one snowbird has been flying into Palm Beach directly from the White House, and bringing disruption with him. President Donald Trump’s frequent weekend visits to picturesque Palm Beach are ruining the scenery for everyone else.

The new president’s frequent visits slow traffic along Southern Boulevard to a near standstill for the half mile or so before it intersects with Ocean Boulevard. Bright orange-and-white police barricades dot the beautiful coastline views. Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana shuts down.

Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN
Orange and white barricades and yellow tape mark Southern Boulevard leading to Mar-a-Lago. Traffic along this stretch slows considerably when the president comes to town.

It’s not just the scenery that’s being disrupted. Trump’s frequent trips outside the White House are taking a financial toll, as well – both on the local police force in Palm Beach and on the U.S. Secret Service.

A law on the books since 1976 was designed to restrict some of that cost. It requires Secret Service protectees to choose only one non-governmental residence to be their primary residence. The Presidential Protection Assistance Act caps Secret Service spending on successive homes at $200,000.

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.

But Florida has also gotten 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 history professor and an expert on South Florida history.

George can name eight presidents in the past hundred 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’s Winter White House was in Key Biscayne. But it was only one of the homes he owned while in office. 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 report – prompted Congress to limit this kind of spending.

The Act was signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. It capped spending on residences after the primary residences at $10,000 (it’s since been raised to $200,000). The Secret Service must seek Congressional authorization for spending greater than that cap.

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.” But the Secret Service won’t even give a ballpark estimate of how much they pay to secure an individual residence.

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 number floating around about the cost of each Mar-a-Lago visit is $3 million. It comes from a report on how much a four-day trip to Florida and Illinois by President Obama in 2013 cost the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

While the federal government spends a lot of money to protect the president wherever he goes, they’re not the only ones. With Trump’s frequent visits to Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is also seeing hefty bills.

Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker says they can’t calculate out exactly how much each visit costs Palm Beach County until they have more data, but was able to give one firm number – $60,000 to $65,000 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 they pay other officers overtime to work on their days off.

For the time being, the sheriff is able to 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 Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-21) 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 in New York, where the First Lady lives with Trump’s youngest son, and Mar-a-Lago, where the president spends most weekends.

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 protectees domiciled together – living 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, they can go to Congress for approval. And 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 President Trump’s residences, but the court of public opinion.