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Secret Service has paid rates as high as $650 a night for rooms at Trump’s properties

Marine One lifts off from the South Lawn as President Donald Trump departs from the White House on Dec. 18, 2019.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD, JONATHAN O'CONNELL, CAROL D. LEONNIG AND JOSH DAWSEY | The Washington Post | Published: February 7, 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's company charges the Secret Service for the rooms agents use while protecting him at his luxury properties — billing U.S. taxpayers at rates as high as $650 per night, according to federal records and people who have seen receipts.

Those charges, compiled here for the first time, show that Trump has an unprecedented — and largely hidden — business relationship with his own government. When Trump visits his clubs in Palm Beach, Florida, and Bedminster, New Jersey, the service needs space to post guards and store equipment.

Trump's company says it charges only minimal fees. But Secret Service records do not show that.

At Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, the Secret Service was charged the $650 rate dozens of times in 2017, and a different rate, $396.15, dozens more times in 2018, according to documents from Trump's visits.

And at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, the Secret Service was charged $17,000 a month to use a three-bedroom cottage on the property, an unusually high rent for homes in that area, according to receipts from 2017. Trump's company billed the government even for days when Trump wasn't there.

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These payments appear to contradict the Trump Organization's own statements about what it charges members of his government entourage. "If my father travels, they stay at our properties for free — meaning, like, cost for housekeeping," Trump's son Eric said last year in a Yahoo Finance interview.

The full extent of the Secret Service's payments to Trump's company is not known. The Secret Service has not listed them in public databases of federal spending, as is usually required for payments over $10,000.

Instead, documents have come out piecemeal, through public records requests from news organizations and watchdog groups. The Washington Post compiled available records and found 103 payments from the Secret Service to Trump's company dated between January 2017 and April 2018.

The records show more than $471,000 in payments from taxpayers to Trump's companies. But — because these records cover only a fraction of Trump's travel during a fraction of his term — the actual total is likely to be higher.

"It is more than a little disconcerting, knowing this is going on, and not knowing what the actual numbers are," said Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "That's kind of crazy that we know the president is benefiting from the presidency, and we do not know how. We do not know how many taxpayer dollars are in his pocket."

The White House did not respond to questions about Trump's knowledge of these payments.

In a statement, the Secret Service said that its spending "balances operational security with judicious allocation of resources." By law, Secret Service agents are exempt from the government's usual per diem spending limits while they are protecting the president. The Secret Service did not respond to a question about why the purchases weren't listed in public databases.

Trump still owns his company. In response to questions from The Post, a company spokesperson said Mar-a-Lago does not charge the Secret Service $650 per room but did not address whether it had charged that rate in the past. The company also noted that the rental cottage at Bedminster contains "multiple rooms and [includes] numerous common spaces."

The company did not answer questions about the rates it charges the Secret Service now.

"We provide the rooms at cost and could make far more money renting them to members or guests," Trump Organization Executive Vice President Eric Trump said in a statement. He gave no details about how the company calculates the "at-cost" price.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump told voters that — if he was elected — he would not have time for travel.

"I would rarely leave the White House because there's so much work to be done," Trump told the Hill in a June 2015 interview. "I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off."

But since taking office, Trump has spent more than 342 days — a third of his entire presidency — at his private clubs and hotels, according to a tally by The Post. Trump has said he works during these trips.

The Secret Service always comes with him, as it does with all presidents. But the Trump Organization has assured the public that it is giving the government a great deal. Last year, Eric Trump told Yahoo Finance that when his father does visit his properties, he is legally required to charge something.

Eric Trump did not say what law required Trump to charge his own government, and the Secret Service did not respond to questions asking what law he was referring to. The Secret Service is part of the Department of Homeland Security, whose internal directives state, "DHS may accept gifts to carry out program functions."

"If he stays at one of his places, the government actually ... saves a fortune because, if they were to go to a hotel across the street, they'd be charging them $500 a night, whereas, you know we charge them, like 50 bucks," Eric Trump said.

That appears to be wrong.

The Secret Service is required to tell Congress twice a year about what it spends to protect Trump at his properties.

But since 2016, it has only filed two of the required six reports, according to congressional offices. The reasons, according to Secret Service officials: key personnel left and nobody picked up the job.

Even in those two reports, the lines for Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago were blank.

The Secret Service officials said only that they abide by the law, but they did not elaborate. They are probably referring to a provision that requires them to tell Congress about "permanent" costs. They may not consider anything they've done at either club permanent.

Senate Democrats have asked the Trump administration to provide more details on the costs of Trump's travel as part of negotiations over a bill governing the Secret Service. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has told the Senate committee that he opposes a requirement to deliver those details until December 2020 at the earliest, which falls after the election.

"They've really stonewalled us," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "He's trying to hide the details from the public, because he knows how bad it looks. That's the truth of it. He's a billionaire, but we're spending millions of dollars to support his for-profit clubs and for-profit businesses."

The Post sought to quantify one part of that spending — the money that goes directly to Trump's own businesses.

Most of the 103 payments discovered by The Post went to just three Trump properties: the Trump International Hotel in Washington and the president's clubs at Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster.

They showed that Trump had quickly shattered past precedent. Other recent presidents have allowed the Secret Service to use their properties — George H.W. Bush's compound in Maine, Bill Clinton's home in suburban New York, George W. Bush's ranch in Texas — free, according to the Secret Service and spokespeople for those former presidents.

The Post could find only one other recent example of a president or vice president charging his own Secret Service rent. Former Vice President Joe Biden charged $2,200 a month for a cottage on his property in Delaware. Unlike the payments to Trump, Biden's payments were listed in public spending databases. Biden was paid a total of $171,600 over six years.

Trump exceeded that total within three months, records show.

In February 2017, for instance, Trump made his first presidential trip to Mar-a-Lago — a for-profit club with guest rooms and suites available to members. The Secret Service sent dozens of people. Most of them stayed at other hotels nearby.

But they also rented at least three rooms at Mar-a-Lago, records show.

The rate: $650 per night, according to two people who saw receipts. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

That was more than triple the normal limit on federal spending for a hotel room in that area, which was $182. It was even more than what the State Department paid for rooms at Mar-a-Lago around the same time, which was $520 to $546.

"The operational needs of the Secret Service can differ from those in the Department of State," a Secret Service spokeswoman said, to explain why their rooms had cost more than the State Department's.

Presidents are exempt from federal conflict-of-interest rules. And the Secret Service is exempt from hotel-room spending limits.

So Trump's company was free to charge what it wanted.

And, according to one former senior administration official with direct knowledge of the operation, his club often treated the Secret Service like any other customer. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with the Trump administration.

"The club wanted to charge the rack rate," the former official said, saying that sometimes officials had to call Eric Trump to lobby for a lower rate. "The club managers were not always that accommodating."

In 2018, the room rate charged to the Secret Service was lower: $396.15 per night, according to public records obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch. One possible reason for the drop in price: The 2018 receipts list the Secret Service as an "honorary member" of the club, which could have made it eligible for a member discount.

But in 2018, receipts show, the Secret Service tended to book more rooms and stay longer than they had in 2017 — in one case, when Trump came for two weekends in a row, the Secret Service rented four rooms for nine nights apiece. They stayed all week, even while Trump was gone.

In Bedminster, records show, the Secret Service went further: It paid not by the day - but for a whole month at a time. The Secret Service rented the club's "Sarazen Cottage," a three-bedroom building near Trump's own villa, from July 1 to Oct. 1, 2017.

The former senior administration official said the cottage was needed to store equipment and provided living space for five or six agents. So - even though Trump was only there about a third of the time - the equipment was there every day. So they paid every day.

"You can't rent the villa part of the year to someone else because it has to stay a Secret Service space," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the Trump administration.

The Trump club does not publish data on the normal rates for these cottages — even to its own members. They are told to contact management for a quote, according to member brochures obtained by The Post.

But the rate of $17,000 per month seems unusually high for a monthly rental. Since fall 2017, there have been 100 rental listings for homes with three or more bedrooms in Bedminster, according to the website Zillow.com. None were anywhere near Trump's rate; the average rental rate was $3,400, and the highest rent listed on Zillow was $8,500. Trump charged twice that.

It is unclear whether the monthly payments to Trump's company began earlier or continued after the date of the last record. Documents obtained by Property of the People - a watchdog group set up to seek documents on Trump's administration - also appear to show the $17,000 per month rate being paid in May 2017.

And former housekeepers from the Bedminster club have said that the Secret Service continued to use the cottage long after these records end, through 2018.

Another visitor to the club — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve access to the club — reported seeing Secret Service agents in the cottage as recently as December.

The Secret Service did not answer questions about whether it was still paying.

The many gaps in the Secret Service data leave many unanswered questions.

Among them: Why were these payments to Trump's clubs not listed in public databases of federal spending, such as usaspending.gov? The Secret Service has publicly listed many other transactions related to Trump's stays at his clubs - rentals of golf carts, tents and portable toilets.

But it has not listed any of these payments to Trump's own businesses.

"It is a surprise" that these payments are not listed, said Sean Moulton of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. Without public data about payments to Trump, he said, "the public doesn't even know the questions they should be asking."

Also: Why did the Secret Service spend so much at Trump's D.C. hotel, a place where - unlike Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago - Trump has not stayed overnight since taking office? In response to records request from NBC News, the Department of Homeland Security released a listing of 39 payments there during Trump's first year, totaling $159,000.

The documents do not give the reasons for those payments - or give the rate that Trump's company charged.

The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow, Nate Jones and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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