Franklin D. Roosevelt had Hyde Park. Lyndon Johnson had his ranches. The first President Bush had a house in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the second a ranch in Crawford, Texas. Even after they’re elected, U.S. presidents often keep their private homes as retreats from the White House; America’s newest president, Donald Trump, has at least two.
Since his election in November, President Trump and his family have spent time at his Fifth Avenue apartment, where the First Lady and their son continue to live, and Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida resort. In the decades since the Kennedy assassination, when presidential protection became more rigorous, no president has kept a home in the thick of a city as big as New York, and critics have questioned the millions of dollars being spent on securing the president’s apartment in Trump Tower.
The Secret Service is required to protect the president wherever he goes. But Congress has, in the past, been sensitive to the costs of that protection, especially when it involves the president’s private property. How much should be spent? Is there a limit? In the 1970s, in fact, after reports of “excesses and abuses” of public money spent at President Nixon’s private residences, Congress went so far as to pass a law that aimed to limit public spending on securing a president’s private property.
The main restriction? Presidents are supposed to pick just one private property for the Secret Service to secure.
Richard M. Nixon bought his house in Key Biscayne, Florida, not long before winning the 1968 election. The house was on the waterfront of the small island, looking across the bay to Miami, and it had a private beach—it was a nice place to escape the strains of running the country.
Months later, President Nixon bought a second new property, a more extensive oceanfront estate in San Clemente, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It was on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the Secret Service soon built a wall around its six acres. The press named the estate “the Western White House.”
Reporters were intensely curious about both properties. They wanted to know how the president financed their purchase and what the government was spending on securing them. By 1973, Congress had the General Accounting Office (later renamed the Government Accountability Office) investigating expenditures at the president’s properties and the history of spending public money on private land.
There were few historical records to go on: the costs of presidential security were rarely itemized. When President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Hyde Park, for instance, protection came mostly from the Secret Service and, during World War II, military personnel, who would guard inner and outer perimeters. The military also installed “a simple anti-intrusion alarm system” on the property. At President Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri, the Secret Service turned part of the garage into a command post, had a wrought-iron fence built around the property, and installed a simple alarm system. President Eisenhower had a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with similar security: “A milk house was remodeled to serve as the command post and the guardhouses were merely telephone booths obtained, apparently without charge, from a telephone company,” the GAO found.
After the Kennedy assassination, though, protection for the president, as well as the president’s family, became more stringent. While Lyndon B. Johnson was in office the government spent about $120,000 (approximately $825,000 in today’s dollars) on securing his Texas properties. The Secret Service had a lighting system built on the perimeter of the LBJ Ranch and guardhouses installed throughout the property. They also installed lights to enable helicopter landings. At the Haywood Ranch, where LBJ’s famous amphibious car lived, the government paid to renovate a boathouse for use by the Secret Service, too.
The work done on Nixon’s properties wasn’t so different in kind from protections installed for previous presidents. Both properties were protected by a barrier—a hedge and fence at Key Biscayne, the wall and fence at San Clemente, guard posts, and electronic alarm systems. At Key Biscayne, the house also had bullet-resistant glass windows installed. But while the alarm technology available had dramatically improved since the 1930s, it was also expensive. Some of the largest line items were for state-of-the-art alarm systems.
In total, the government spent more than $1 million on improving Nixon’s private estates, including $224,000 on landscaping and paving at Nixon’s two properties. (That’s more than $5.4 million, total, in today’s dollars.) Most of the work was for security purposes, although some items, such as the flagpoles requested by a military aide, were not. The GAO did find, though, that some of the spending was excessive. “It appears that the Government did some landscape maintenance at both residences which should have been done at the President’s expense,” the office reported.
These investigations spurred Congress to put limits on such spending, even after Nixon had been removed from office. In 1976, the legislature had passed a bill meant “to prevent the excessive and questionable capital improvements made to the private property of Secret Service protectees.” It required that Secret Service protectees—who include the president and vice president’s families—designate just one property as their primary private residence. (If protectees lived together, they were still limited to one property.) For any additional property, there was a cap on spending, of $10,000, without additional approval from Congress.
President Gerald Ford signed the bill into law, over the objections of the Secret Service, which wanted no limit on what it could spend to protect a president. President Carter was the first president to be bound by the new restriction: he selected his home in Plains, Georgia, as his primary residence. President Reagan selected his California ranch; his empty house in Los Angeles was protected by Secret Service agents for months while it was being sold. The Secret Service later told the Associated Press that their costs in California did not exceed the $10,000 threshold, though the AP noted that “the law was unclear about whether salaries are included in the $10,000 limit.”
Over time, that threshold crept up, to $75,000 in 1985 and $200,000 in 1995. In 1989, Congress also added a provision to the law intended to help out the small police force of Kennebunkport, which had quickly exhausted its overtime budget dealing with visits by the first President Bush. The new provision allowed up to $160,000 to reimburse state and local governments for expenses associated with such visits—provided they had a population of fewer than 7,000 people. (That amount was later increased to $300,000.)
In theory, investing in security at the president’s private residence is efficient. “If you’re going to be going back to that place, it’s probably worth the investment,” says Pat O’Carroll, the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, who served in the Secret Service. If it’s secured, the Secret Service can be assured of its safety whenever the president returns.
Since the law’s been passed, though, no one has tested its limits as President Trump has. The federal government has agreed to give New York City $7 million to cover the extra costs of helping to secure Trump Tower for the weeks between the election and the inauguration, but the city’s best hope of getting more financial assistance for securing the tower, the cost of which is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, is for Congress to appropriate extra funds for that purpose. Palm Beach County is also looking for help covering the cost of the president’s Mar-a-Lago visits. No matter what, though, the country will spend more on protecting President Trump’s private properties than it has on any other president in history.