U.S. Politics

Trump private security force ‘playing with fire’

Donald Trump’s longtime director of security Keith Schiller (second from left) walks onto the stage with Trump and his Secret Service detail for a rally in Tampa, Fla., the weekend before the election.

M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

POLITICO

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — President-elect Donald Trump has continued employing a private security and intelligence team at his victory rallies, and he is expected to keep at least some members of the team after he becomes president, according to people familiar with the plans.

The arrangement represents a major break from tradition. All modern presidents and presidents-elect have entrusted their personal security entirely to the Secret Service, and their event security mostly to local law enforcement, according to presidential security experts and Secret Service sources.

But Trump — who puts a premium on loyalty and has demonstrated great interest in having forceful security at his events — has opted to maintain an aggressive and unprecedented private security force, led by Keith Schiller, a retired New York City cop and Navy veteran who started working for Trump in 1999 as a part-time bodyguard, eventually rising to become his head of security.

Security officials warn that employing private security personnel heightens risks for the president-elect and his team, as well as for protesters, dozens of whom have alleged racial profiling, undue force or aggression at the hands Trump’s security, with at least 10 joining a trio of lawsuits now pending against Trump, his campaign or its security.

“It’s playing with fire,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent who worked on President Barack Obama’s protective detail during his 2012 reelection campaign. Having a private security team working events with Secret Service “increases the Service’s liability, it creates greater confusion and it creates greater risk,” Wackrow said.

“You never want to comingle a police function with a private security function,” he said, adding, “If you talk to the guys on the detail and the guys who are running the rallies, that’s been a little bit difficult because it’s so abnormal.”

Wackrow, who left the Service in 2014 and is now executive director of a security company called RANE (short for Risk Assistance Network + Exchange), said if he were the lead agent at a Trump rally, “I wouldn’t allow it.” But he suggested it’s a tricky situation for the Service. “What are they going to do: pick a fight with the president-elect and his advisers? That’s not a way to start a romance.”

Several past presidential nominees have used private security or, in the case of governors running for president, state police details. But the experts could not think of another example of a president-elect continuing with any private security after Election Day, when Secret Service protection expands dramatically for the winner. In fact, most candidates drop any outside security the moment they’re granted Secret Service protection.

Trump’s spending on private security, on the other hand, actually increased after he was granted Secret Service protection in November 2015.

Through the end of last month, Trump’s campaign had spent more than $1 million on private security contracting, compared to $360,000 spent by the campaign of his vanquished Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That’s despite the fact that every other aspect of her campaign operation dwarfed his. Overall, her campaign outspent his by nearly 75 percent overall.

Whereas Clinton’s security spending — like that of most presidential campaigns — went mostly to protection for her offices and payments to local law enforcement or security companies for ad hoc event security, Trump’s campaign took it to a whole different level. It built a robust private security force that traveled the country supplementing the protective personal security supplied by the Secret Service, and working to identify and remove possible protesters — or just people Trump and his allies have a bad feeling about — from his events.

The private security team has been present at each of the seven rallies on Trump’s post-election “Thank You Tour,” and has removed protesters — sometimes roughly — at many stops.

That included about a dozen protesters during a rally here on Dec. 9 in a minor-league arena called the Deltaplex, where Trump mostly shrugged off the interruptions until he became impatient with a particularly disruptive protester. “Get ‘em out!” the president-elect instructed his private security. That appeared to spur Trump’s security director Schiller to venture away from the stage, where he arrived with Trump, and wade deep into the crowd to assist other private security personnel with the removal.

Before the end of the rally, Schiller returned to his place by Trump’s side, along with a Secret Service contingent of which he is often misidentified as a member. (Despite being — at 58 years old — significantly older than most agents, Schiller looks the part, invariably sporting a uniform of dark suits and white shirts, along with a Secret Service-issued perimeter pin, and maintaining an athletic 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound frame.) Together, the entourage accompanied Trump to back to the airport, onto his plane and back to New York. It was the same routine as Schiller and Trump repeated countless times during the campaign, and it likely will be repeated countless more times over thecoming years, since Schiller is expected to follow Trump into the White House, according to multiple sources on the transition team.

In interviews with about a dozen people who interact with Trump, they said even as the president-elect’s Secret Service detail has expanded significantly since the election, he remains most comfortable with Schiller and his team. A native of New Paltz, New York and father of two, Schiller has been director of security for The Trump Organization since 2004.

The Trump associates say Schiller is expected to become a personal White House aide who would serve as the incoming president’s full-time physical gatekeeper, though he might not be able to offer his boss the wide range of services he has in the past. For instance, federal law prohibits anyone other than law enforcement officers from bringing firearms into federal buildings, and there are even stricter rules about who can carry on the White House grounds or around Secret Service protectees. Schiller had been armed at times early in the campaign, but it’s unclear if he continued carrying a firearm after Trump was granted Secret Service protection in November 2015.

Even after the arrival of Trump’s Service detail, which typically marks the end of any pre-existing security arrangement, Schiller never strayed from his boss’s side.

The associates say Schiller provides more than just security. Trump has been known to ask Schiller’s opinion on all manner of subjects. When people want to reach Trump, they often call Schiller’s cell phone and he decides who gets through to the boss.

Photos often show Schiller looming over Trump’s shoulder as he works crowds, standing sentry by the stage as Trump speaks, or ejecting protesters from rallies. He’s developed a small, but avid fan base on Twitter, where Trump supporters cheer Schiller’s confrontations with protesters, pose for selfies with him at events and backstage, and praise him as a brave “American Eagle” who kept Trump “safe & sound.”

And Schiller, a registered Republican, showed signs of reveling in Trump’s campaign, creating his own Twitter account just before the first primaries to promote the campaign and chronicle his unique perspective from the trail. He occasionally channeled his boss’s attacks on rivals like Ted Cruz (“Wow Lyin Ted is becoming unhinged! So sad…” he tweeted as Trump was clinching the GOP nomination over the Texas senator), and spread false claims about Democrats, including that 20 percent of Clinton’s campaign cash came from people who were responsible for the September 2001 terrorist attacks, that a grand jury had been convened to investigate her use of a private email server for State Department business and that Obama encouraged undocumented immigrants to vote illegally.

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