Former intelligence and Secret Service officials say that Pres. Donald Trump is making the U.S. uniquely vulnerable to foreign spying with his weekly jaunts to his private resort in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, and that each repeat visit escalates the danger.
Politico reported Friday evening that while the White House provides a chief executive with layers of security — everyone who enters must provide the Secret Service with their full name, birth date, Social Security number, city of residence and country of birth — anyone can breeze through Mar-a-Lago’s security checkpoints so long as they show a single photo ID and are invited by a club member.
Anyone wishing to spy upon conversations among the president’s aides, plant listening devices or surveil Trump’s daily habits and routines has multiple windows of opportunity to do so, say experts like former CIA Director Michael Hayden.
“One could send a source to attend and report on atmospherics, the buzz, attendees, rumors, etc.,” Hayden told Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn in an email.
Foreign powers looking to recruit intelligence assets can view rosters of the club’s members online, all of whom are now vulnerable to “surveillance, blackmail or bribes that can help them get closer to the president,” Samuelsohn said.
Greater risk, he said, lies in the fact that a cursory amount of internet searching yields the names, work email addresses and phone numbers of more than a dozen key Mar-a-Lago staff members, “including the managing director, who has special Secret Service clearance to get up close to Trump, the chief of security, the housekeeping director and the official in charge of food and beverage services. All would be obvious targets for operatives trying to get information on the president or others in his entourage.”
“Hostile intelligence services would love to plant bugs in a place like this,” said John McLaughlin — former acting CIA director — to Politico.
Other presidents have had their getaway spots during their terms in office, but none were currently functioning as high-end hotels.
“No one ever ran a residence that served as a hotel,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said to Samuelsohn. “It’s a security nightmare by having such a turnstile of folks coming and going.”
The Intercept said earlier this year that foreign spies must be “bored” with how laughably easy the Trump administration is making their jobs.
After Pres. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister had a security briefing about North Korea in plain view of guests and staff in the resort’s dining room, Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesperson for President Obama, said on Twitter, “Collecting intelligence on the US president is now as simple as paying off a Mar-a-Lago waiter.”
Robert Mackey wrote on Feb. 13, “For a clue as to just how easy that might be, consider that the Palm Beach Post reported in December that Mar-a-Lago hires dozens of temporary foreign workers each year, using the federal government’s H-2B visa program.”
He continued, “It was not immediately clear where the foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago come from, but another club in the area told members that workers hired under the same visa program come from Romania, Ireland, and South Africa.”
Samuelsohn said security experts said that hostile agents don’t even need to get close to the president or his advisers to do their work. Even “seemingly mundane pieces of data” can prove to be actionable intelligence, including “the routine that aides have every morning for going to the gym or eating breakfast, the names of the waiters and other club staffers whom Trump favors and the housekeepers who work on the president’s private suite and the rooms where his aides work.”
“What you’re doing is you’re making it easier for foreign intelligence by telegraphing what you’re going to do every single weekend,” said a former Secret Service agent who did not wish to be identified by Politico. “If I know there’s a 50-50 chance, I’m going to try to get in there.”
Trump has traveled to the resort for every weekend of his presidency except the weekend immediately following his inauguration and one weekend in late February.