Between January and the end of February, Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric have visited four different countries — Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Dubai and Canada — to celebrate the opening of new Trump-branded hotels and golf courses, and to check on other Trump Organization projects and potential investments.
Secret Service officers trailed the brothers on each of these trips with U.S. taxpayers covering the bodyguards' airfare, hotel rooms and meals. The Secret Service won't release its travel expenses, but the hotel tab in Uruguay alone was estimated at nearly $100,000, according to the Washington Post.
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. You don't hear much about Vice President Mike Pence's three 20-something kids, but President Donald Trump's adult offspring caught flak for hauling their Secret Service details all over the world at the U.S. taxpayer's expense.
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. 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."
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."
The overall cost of Secret Service protection for the Trump family is likely to be millions more than it was for Obama's family over four years, since in addition to the sons' trips abroad, Trump spends almost every weekend in Palm Beach, and Melania Trump is living full time in New York City, at least for the rest of their son Barron's school year. Some think that Donald Jr. and Eric Trump should 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 be good practice, but legally it doesn't have to happen.