By Drew Harwell, The Washington Post
As the Trump administration threatened hefty budget cuts for the U.S. Coast Guard, the military service was spending more than $6.6 million protecting the president’s waterfront Mar-a-Lago Club during his seven weekend trips there this spring, documents show.
The Coast Guard deployed cutters, patrol boats, helicopters and anti-terror specialists from across the country to safeguard the luxury Palm Beach, Florida, estate.
The deployments came as Coast Guard leaders, bracing for possible budget cuts, have argued that the cash-strapped service has made painful sacrifices — letting some illegal drug shipments go and delaying certain repairs to its fleet.
The records, released Thursday to The Washington Post in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, offer a glimpse into the intricate costs and demands for a military force tasked with defending the president during his frequent getaways to his private businesses.
They also highlight how taxpayers have helped finance the unusually elaborate lifestyle of Trump and his family in ways that can also benefit his company. In this case, Mar-a-Lago, which Trump has dubbed a “Winter White House,” is also a for-profit, members-only club.
The Coast Guard has provided security for past presidents alongside the U.S. Secret Service, including guarding former President Barack Obama during trips such as his annual family vacations to Hawaii, but officials could not immediately provide estimates for those costs.
When Obama spent a weekend in South Florida in 2013, the Coast Guard spent about $586,000 to cover patrol, travel and lodging costs, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year.
The spending at Mar-a-Lago, which comes to close to $1 million for each trip, appears to collide with the president’s pledges of trimming government costs.
The Coast Guard spent more than $17.8 million on presidential security costs between October and March, offering air and waterside patrols for high-level events during the Obama and Trump administrations. That cost was up from $15.1 million in the same period ending in March 2016, and $10.7 million for the period ending in March 2015, Coast Guard records show.
The Coast Guard is brought in to protect Trump at official events as well as recreational excursions, including patrolling the Potomac River when the president plays golf at his Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia.
The Secret Service requested Coast Guard protection for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago visits, which are classified as “national special security events,” Coast Guard officials said. The club has represented an expensive challenge for the service, which patrols the airspace above the estate as well as its two coastlines along the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.
The Coast Guard’s missions — including drug interdictions and port patrols — sit at the center of some of Trump’s biggest campaign promises, including stricter immigration and homeland security. But leaders say the military branch has struggled to complete its mission while faced with a tightening budget and aging fleet.
The Coast Guard’s commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday that the branch was “deferring maintenance” and running cutters and aircraft long beyond their retirement age because it needed more funding.
In a CBS interview that aired Tuesday, Zukunft added that the Coast Guard had not pursued hundreds of potential drug shipments last year because “we didn’t have enough planes, we didn’t have enough ships.”
The Coast Guard’s spending accounts for a fraction of the military security apparatus that has encircled Trump during journeys to his private clubs and golf courses. Congress this year allocated roughly $120 million in additional funding to help cover the Secret Service’s presidential travel and protection, as well as “extraordinary law enforcement personnel costs” incurred by local governments during Trump’s trips.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Officials have in the past defended the costs as necessary to safeguard the president’s work, with White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham saying in February, “He is not vacationing when he goes to Mar-a-Lago. The president works nonstop every day of the week, no matter where he is.”
Coast Guard service members, specialists, pilots and engineers spent thousands of hours on patrol or support duties around the time of the president’s 25 days at Mar-a-Lago between February and April, records show.
Gun-mounted response boats manned by four-person tactical crews spent 1,866 hours on the water, or more than 77 full days, at a cost of about $2.8 million, the documents show.
They were joined by larger watercraft, including an 87-foot Marine Protector-class patrol boat and a 154-foot fast-response cutter, which watched for threats and kept out recreational boaters in three nearby “security zones.”
Back on land, teams of armory staff, mechanics and electronics specialists worked to keep the boats running and armed. Overhead, H-65 Dolphin helicopters, traditionally used for water rescues, flew for 135 hours so as to intercept low- and slow-flying aircraft, at a cost of about $7,885 an hour.
Special anti-terror units, known as Maritime Safety and Security Teams, also deployed to Mar-a-Lago from Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Boston, New York and a naval submarine base in southeastern Georgia. Flights, mileage, lodging and other expenses for Coast Guard service members patrolling the seven Mar-a-Lago visits exceeded $720,000.
Trump gave up day-to-day management of Mar-a-Lago but still owns the private club, which took in $37.2 million in resort-related revenue between January 2016 and April 2017, financial disclosures show.
The club, which hosts banquets and weddings and offers a spa and tennis courts, doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 shortly after Trump won the election.
The White House in March proposed slashing the Coast Guard’s budget by 14 percent, triggering alarms among military leaders, before promising that it would instead keep the branch’s budget to “current funding levels.”
The president’s latest proposal, delivered to Congress in May, cuts the Coast Guard’s budget by 2.4 percent, or about $267 million. The Secret Service’s $2.1 billion budget is slated to grow less than 1 percent.
The Coast Guard, Zukunft said in April, has received no extra funding to help cover the costs of “protecting the approaches to Mar-a-Lago on both coasts … (and) in the air.” Service officials said the Presidential Protection Assistance Act restricts them from seeking reimbursement for costs associated with supporting presidential security.
The Coast Guard is one of several tax-funded agencies involved in the protection of the president’s private club. Palm Beach County officials said they spent more than $60,000 a day toward costs such as deputy overtime when Trump was in town this past spring.
Trump’s interest in waterfront excursions has taxed the Coast Guard in other ways. The service walked back plans this week that forbid recreational paddlers and boaters from skimming two miles of the Potomac River near the Trump golf club when the president is playing there.
The Coast Guard did not respond to questions about whether it encountered any security intrusions during its Mar-a-Lago deployments. But the service’s round-the-clock patrols did report some suspicious activity to the police, including a young couple having sex on a small nearby island in April, according to the Palm Beach Daily News.