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Why Does the Secret Service Protect a President's Adult Children?

trump kids
Donald Trump's oldest adult children (from left) Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric. Not pictured is another adult daughter, Tiffany, and his youngest son, Barron. Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images

When outgoing President Donald J. Trump became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice by the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2021, his future and those of his adult children became instantly darker and more uncertain.

The United States Secret Service provides 24/7 protection for the wives and kids of the U.S. president and vice president, including their adult children, and the Trump offspring have been no exception. The Secret Service has, during the four years of Trump's tenure, spent enormous amounts of money providing protection to Trump's children. In October 2020, The Washington Post reported that the Trump Organization, on behalf of Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., had charged the federal government at least $238,000 for Secret Service lodgings when they and their families visited Trump properties.

The adult Trump children have caught plenty of flak during their father's administration for hauling their Secret Service details all over the world at the U.S. taxpayer's expense.

Secret Service officers have trailed Don Jr. and Eric all over the world, including on trips to celebrate the openings of new Trump-branded hotels and golf courses, and to check on other Trump Organization projects and potential investments — U.S. taxpayers have covered the bodyguards' airfare, hotel rooms and meals. The Secret Service won't release its travel expenses, but the hotel tab on a 2017 trip for Eric Trump to Uruguay alone was estimated at nearly $100,000, according to The Washington Post.

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What Does the Law Say?

According to federal law, the Secret Service is authorized to protect the sitting U.S. president and vice president (or the next-in-line for the presidency), their immediate families, and all former U.S. presidents and their spouses, as well as their children under age 16. While in office, neither the president nor the vice president can decline Secret Service protection, but their spouses and adult children can.

Almost all presidential families have accepted full Secret Service protection for as long as the law allows. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush even asked for extensions to cover their college-age children for a period after they left office, as did Barack Obama for his daughters. The few exceptions are Ronald Reagan's youngest son, Ron, who declined Secret Service protection during his father's second term, and Richard and Pat Nixon, who canceled their lifetime protection in 1985, to save the government money. They hired their own security detail.

In 1994, Congress limited protection of future presidents to just 10 years after leaving office, as a cost-cutting measure. In 2013, it reinstated lifetime protection, citing concerns over terrorism. Not every congressperson was in favor. Some thought, given the lucrative opportunities open to former presidents, they should pay for the long-term security themselves.

Despite the cost, the Trump family is doing nothing unusual by accepting Secret Service protection at home and while traveling abroad. In fact, there is a legitimate reason for extending that protection.

"If Eric Trump is traveling and let's say, God forbid, gets attacked and hurt, killed — imagine the impact, the psychological impact, that would have on the president," Jonathan Wackrow told NPR news. He is a former Secret Service member who used to protect Barack Obama's family. "So by protecting the children, you're by default protecting the sanctity of the office of the presidency."

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Should Presidents Have to Pay for Their Family's Security?

However, never in the history of the American presidency has the commander-in-chief been a former international business mogul. And never has a multibillion-dollar global brand been so closely tied to the American president.

Brendan Fischer is an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center and an expert of government transparency and ethics. He believes that the Trump family shouldn't use public funds to help earn profits for a private business.

"You want the president's kids to be safe," says Fischer, "but there are legitimate questions about how much taxpayers should be paying so the Trump family can travel around the world and advance their own personal financial interests.

There's also the mixed message sent when Donald Jr. and Eric Trump travel to make international business deals flanked by serious-looking dudes with earpieces and lapel pins.

"It could appear as though the trip is somehow sanctioned by the U.S. government or that the kids are there acting as emissaries of the president," says Fischer. "The fact that the Secret Service is present and providing security detail further contributes to the appearance that the Trump Organization is intertwined with the presidency of the United States."

By the time Trump leaves office on Jan. 20, 2021, the overall cost of Secret Service protection for the Trump family is likely to have been millions more than it was for Obama's family over four years, since in addition to the sons' trips abroad, Trump spent almost every weekend in Palm Beach, Florida at his estate Mar-a-Lago. Some think that Donald Jr. and Eric Trump should have been made to pay for their own security detail, both to lessen the financial burden to U.S. taxpayers and also to signal a deeper commitment to separating business from politics. It might have been a good idea, but legally it didn't have to happen.

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