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‘Like he’s Caesar’: How Donald Trump maximizes his post-presidency protection

No former president is as ‘showy’ with asks as Trump, former agent says

A man waves a “Trump Won” flag as people wait in line to enter the Turning Point Action rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on  Aug. 19, 2022.
A man waves a “Trump Won” flag as people wait in line to enter the Turning Point Action rally in Youngstown, Ohio, on Aug. 19, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Donald Trump’s motorcade zoomed into an Atlanta detention facility last week escorted by a convoy of police motorcycles leading more than a dozen other vehicles. It was like he was still in office — not facing 91 felony charges.

There were police cruisers, black Secret Service Chevrolet Suburbans with shiny tires and rims, an armored police vehicle, vans for aides and press, and even a yellow ambulance. As the convoy approached the jail, a phalanx of officers on motorcycles led the way. An A-list movie producer would have struggled to create such a perfect, and presidential, visual.

The highways and urban streets that the motorcade traversed were free of any other traffic traveling in the same direction, and side streets were blocked off. Local and federal officers in Kevlar vests kept an eye on bystanders eager to get a glimpse of Trump’s latest spectacle.

The motorcade was a co-star in Trump’s latest made-for-television event, turning a 22-minute booking at the so-called “Rice Street Jail” into a dramatic six-hour prime-time spectacle.

One might have expected to see the incumbent president of the United States riding in the backseat of one of the SUVs. After all, no one travels with a bigger — or more expensive — footprint than the leader of the free world.

Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent who has worked on presidential details, said in an interview that “you could get to seven, eight or even nine cars pretty fast with just the Secret Service component of the former president’s motorcade.”

“How many vehicles are part of the security methodology depends on who the protectee is and what is the threat assessment,” Wackrow said. “Former President Trump has been out of office, relatively speaking, for a short amount of time, so the threats against him are still pretty high. That’s why the SUVs he uses are armored to a point.

“You’ve got the main transport vehicle, a spare vehicle, tactical elements from both the Secret Service and local law enforcement. There are protective intelligence agents, supervisory agents, extra agents in case there is an [unexpected] stop requested by the protectee and usually an ambulance,” he added. “The other component is controlled by a former president’s staff. So that consists of vehicles for staff, for press, for guests. One thing unique about this former president is he’s running campaign, so you might have a couple vehicles for campaign staff.”

The Atlanta motorcade “was not too different in size to what you would see when another head of state visits the United States,” Wackrow said.

But Trump is no longer a head of state, begging the questions: Why are law enforcement agencies still treating him as such? And are taxpayers picking up the bill — or his many loyalists who have donated to the campaign organization turned legal defense fund? Journalists and legal experts on a CNN panel breaking down the Atlanta visit spent a few minutes questioning the motorcade’s heft. One former GOP congressman joined in on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“There is not a threat assessment that supports this motorcade. It’s staging and vanity,” David Jolly, who represented Florida’s 13th District, wrote as Trump sped toward his Aug. 24 arrest in Fulton County, adding that the motorcade’s size was mostly about The Donald’s political ambitions.

But Wackrow and the top U.S. Secret Service spokesman said any protectee’s political motivations are none of the agents’ concerns.

“Based on protective intelligence, there are mandatory security functions that need to be included in a motorcade in order for the Secret Service to provide the highest level of protection for our protectees,” Anthony Guglielmi, USSS communications chief, said in an email this week.

The agents assigned to Trump’s detail work out what is needed and available via local law enforcement, Guglielmi said, noting the size and makeup of a protective convoy change because, for instance, “New York City has very different motorcade stipulations than Atlanta and Miami.”

Such a large formation of local police motorbikes didn’t lead the way when the Secret Service moved Trump to courthouses in New York and Miami, something Wackrow also noticed. They likely were “added after Miami as a security precaution because when the motorcade departed in Miami, there was a bottleneck and protesters moved toward the motorcade.”

“So you add the motorbikes because they are so nimble and agile,” he noted. “They can respond to a variety of threats very quickly. The bikes are an essential part of any motorcade, and having them, again, is based on a detailed threat assessment.”

While Guglielmi declined to disclose who picked up the tabs for Trump’s motorcade trips to be arrested and arraigned, Wackrow was blunt: “Who pays? The taxpayers. That’s just the way that it is.” A former president is not asked to reimburse the Secret Service or local law enforcement entities, he said.

Monies for such USSS protectee movements are baked into annual budgets, meaning lawmakers don’t typically scrutinize them as they focus on other issues. Several House and Senate Democratic aides did not express any concerns when pinged this week.

But one former Trump consigliere said he was “appalled” by the Atlanta armada and the ones assembled for his New York and Miami court appearances.

“Why? He’s nothing more than an indicted defendant. How much money did it cost the American taxpayers? How much money did it cost the people of Atlanta in order to put all the police officers, and for what?” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer who served prison time after being convicted on charges related to a payment on his then-client’s behalf to porn star Stormy Daniels, told MSNBC.

“For this man to roll up like he’s Caesar coming through the gates of Rome after a victory? He is an indicted defendant on 91 counts. He should not be given this sort of royal treatment,” Cohen added.

The Secret Service was founded in 1865, and it has been protecting presidents since 1901. The Former Presidents Act of 1958 ushered in the protection of former chief executives for life, a provision that was restored in 2012 after it was reduced to 10 years in 1994.

‘A certain optic’

A large motorcade is part of a president’s so-called bully pulpit. While other presidents have endorsed stepping off theirs upon leaving office, Trump has not.

While the Secret Service contends it is merely trying to give this former president the “highest level of protection,” the large motorcades run the risk of inadvertently feeding some of his supporters’ collective beliefs. One is that he is still president after a stolen 2020 election. Another is that he is not subject to the same rules as others.

President Joe Biden is much less interested in constant media engagement and creating prime-time television spectacles. The same is true of the kind of brash social media posts Trump still pushes out on Truth Social. This also helps Trump maintain the loudest post-presidency bully pulpit anyone has ever witnessed.

Perhaps the motorcades, continued ability to create made-for-television moments and a fiery social media presence are collectively a big reason Trump and his legal team contend the four-time indicted former president is not worried about the years in prison the 91 charges he faces could bring.

Trump told conservative commentator Tucker Carlson he is upbeat about his legal plight because “the people get it,” meaning he thinks they agree with him that all four indictments were politically motivated. One of his attorneys, Alina Habba, said in a television interview last Sunday that “we know this is intentional,” adding: “We’re not concerned because we know the facts of the cases. … But I can tell you that it’s to tie him up, it’s definitely political.”

Time will tell if Trump is convicted in the three coming trials related to his post-election actions and mishandling of classified documents. But one thing is certain: The showman in chief will continue maximizing his post-presidency protection.

“I think you can expect the same thing when he goes back to Atlanta for his first court date [there],” Wackrow said. “All protectees request something. They all want a certain optic. … But no former president is as showy as Donald Trump, that’s for sure.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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