Amid Critical Supply Shortage, FEMA Is Spending Millions to Protect Trump Properties

At a time when every federal dollar counts, some question whether the $41 million annual payout is a good use of government resources.

President Donald Trump pauses during a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 24, 2019. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided less than 10 percent of the N95 masks requested by officials in five states and the District of Columbia, according to documents released Thursday by the House Oversight Committee. FEMA also told the committee that the Strategic National Stockpile had only 9,500 remaining ventilators — far short of what will likely be needed to treat a growing number of coronavirus patients.

Although federal officials have known of the shortages for months, they have not been remedied. Yet every year since 2017, Congress has directed FEMA to set aside $41 million of its budget to offset the extraordinary costs of providing security for President Donald Trump’s properties. The “Presidential Residence Assistant Protection Grants” were most recently funded by Congress in an appropriations package in December.

According to memos posted on its website, FEMA has previously identified Trump properties in New York, New Jersey, and Florida as “qualifying residences” and paid out millions of dollars to the New York Police Department and Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, among others. The grant program is limited to reimbursing “operational overtime and backfill overtime” for law enforcement and cannot be used to underwrite salaries or purchase police equipment.

The grant program does not make up a huge part of FEMA’s annual budget or its disaster relief fund, which just received a $45 billion infusion from last month’s stimulus bill. But at a time when every federal dollar counts, some question whether the payout to secure Trump properties is a good use of government resources.

Tyson Slocum, a program director with the advocacy group Public Citizen, told The Intercept by phone that the program “doesn’t seem to be in line with FEMA’s core objectives” and that he had “a financial conflict of interest concern” about it. Public Citizen recently used public records requests to show how much the Secret Service paid to rent rooms at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

“It’s been well established that President Trump spends an inordinate amount of time at his properties, that he routinely advertises his properties as part of his official duties, and that having this sort of special fund to help offset local security costs is an indirect benefit to the president,” Slocum said. “Allowing reimbursements to those local law enforcement costs could be relieving the Trump businesses of having to provide extra security.”

A former FEMA official who declined to be named for fear of professional reprisal, told The Intercept that the $41 million grant program was created in 2017 to help cover the huge costs of security at Trump’s residences, though it is unclear who in Congress shepherded the language to passage then and in each year since.

The former official pointed out that previous presidents have spent time in private residences — like the vacation home Barack Obama rented on Martha’s Vineyard in 2013, or the private ranch used by George W. Bush while in office — but that neither burdened local law enforcement agencies the way that Trump’s trips to his properties have.

In 2017, for example, a letter from the NYPD to Congress estimated that it had cost the department $24 million to provide security to Trump Tower, the Manhattan property that served as Trump’s headquarters during the transition period between Election Day and his inauguration.

A FEMA spokesperson told The Intercept by email that the money earmarked for security at Trump properties could not be repurposed due to language in the appropriations bills, which requires that the money be used “exclusively” for “protection activities … directly and demonstrably associated with any residence of the President that is designated or identified to be secured by the US Secret Service.”

FEMA is “evaluating changes in the application processes and grant requirements” as a result of the government’s Covid-19 response efforts, the spokesperson said.

Since 2017, the Trump administration’s budget requests have proposed steep cuts to FEMA’s disaster preparedness grants, drawing condemnation from some experts who claim that they are necessary to prepare for future disasters. Last year, the Trump administration also took more than $150 million from FEMA’s disaster relief fund to pay for immigration enforcement along the southern border.

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