Trump private security force ‘playing with fire’
The president-elect continues to employ a battalion of retired cops and FBI agents to protect him and clamp down on protesters.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — 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 of 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 commingle 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 Secret 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 Secret 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 with $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.
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 had 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 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 the coming 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 whether he continued carrying a firearm after Trump was granted Secret Service protection.
Even after the arrival of Trump’s Secret Service detail, which typically marks the end of any pre-existing security arrangement, Schiller never strayed from his boss’ 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 cellphone 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’ 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.
Yet Schiller mostly remains — as one former campaign aide put it — “the most important man no one has ever heard of.”
That influence comes from Schiller’s ability to essentially control access to Trump, acting as his liaison to everyone from staff and well-wishers to dignitaries — and even Secret Service agents.
“Keith is kind of a consigliere,” said a transition team official. “He knows all the players, all the properties. He has the confidence of Trump and of the family. To describe him as a body guy would be very, very beneath the role that he actually plays.”
A younger aide — possibly the campaign’s trip director John McEntee — likely will be tapped for the traditional body man valet-like role, while Schiller would fill a new type of a hybrid staff-security role, the official explained. “Keith knows Trump inside and out. He knows when he turns right and when it turns left,” the official said.
Yet Schiller’s tight relationship with — and protectiveness of — his boss has already complicated the Secret Service’s rigid protection protocols, say allies of the agency and independent security experts.
In March, when a 32-year-old man jumped a barricade and rushed toward the stage as Trump was speaking at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, Secret Service agents immediately descended on Trump from opposite sides of the dais, encircling him in a human shield as a handful of other agents tackled the man before he could leap onto the stage. About a second after the first two agents reached Trump, Schiller leapt onto the stage and moved to position himself between the scrum and his boss.
The response appeared tightly choreographed to the untrained eye — a phalanx of men in dark suits and close-cropped hair swarming to protect their charge.
But in law enforcement circles, Schiller’s reaction was panned as too slow and was the subject of disapproving conversation among agents, according to a law enforcement source briefed on the conversations. The source said one agent described Schiller as the “JV trying to keep up in a varsity game.”
Specifically, the source said that Schiller came from a position on the dais that the agents would have used to evacuate Trump if that were to have been necessary. “If that happened, they would have run right into Keith. He was about three seconds too late,” the source said.
Joe Funk, a former Secret Service agent who worked several presidential campaigns, said agents throughout their careers are “trained nonstop to react to different situations based on your position and distance from the protectee in what they call AOP, or assaults on the principal.” That includes intensive drilling as a detail before being deployed to protect a presidential candidate or president “to familiarize yourself with the people who you are going to be working with.”
Stressing that he wasn’t assessing the response to the Dayton incident, Funk said “without any slight to Keith or to any of the guys on his team, they just haven’t had the opportunity to go through the Secret Service training that would allow them to respond to a situation like a Secret Service agent would.”
Since retiring from the Secret Service in 2005, Funk has provided private security for presidential candidates, including Obama in the early stages of the 2008 campaign and Mitt Romney in 2012. In both those cases, he said that when the Secret Service took over, he almost immediately stepped aside. “My assignment was over. That was it.”
So Funk said that he was “very surprised,” while providing security for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, to witness firsthand Trump’s “composite detail” including the Service and private security at multicandidate events during the primary. “I was under the impression that at some point this would be weeded out,” or that the private security would revert to more of a traditional staff role, said Funk, who is senior vice president at a private security firm called TorchStone Global. As for why that appears not to have occurred, Funk said “there may be a very good reason for it, but as a layperson on the outside looking in, I’m just kind of scratching my head. In my experience, this is unprecedented.”
Agents and their associates told POLITICO that Schiller and his team initially bristled at the Secret Service’s move to take the lead, and that the continued presence of the private security brigade at events has caused tension and in some cases gotten in the way of the Secret Service’s protocols.
During the campaign, Schiller and his team could be seen at rallies appearing to direct Secret Service agents, local police and employees of security companies hired for specific events.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks declined to respond to a series of questions about the private security officials, who is paying them, their relationship with the Secret Service, whether they’re armed and what their roles will be after inauguration. Instead, she said in a statement, “Trump rallies are incredibly safe events and are executed with support from USSS, local law enforcement and private security to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all guests in attendance. For further details please reach out to the USSS.”
Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole Mainor issued a statement saying, “The Secret Service does not provide information regarding our protective operations,” and referring to a section of the U.S. Code that outlines the agency’s obligations to protect the president-elect. As for the agency’s relationship with Trump’s security personnel and whether the Service has asked Trump to dial back his security or whether the security carry firearms, Mainor responded only: “The individuals you are referring to are staff personnel.”
Schiller did not respond to requests for comment.
In a little-noticed video interview recorded in Trump Tower less than two months after then-candidate Trump was granted Secret Service protection, Schiller said his team had “a great working relationship” with the Secret Service. “They bring their own set of assets, which is right now, we can use everything we can get, as far as the way the world is right now, and the campaign in itself. It’s inherently a risky business every day,” Schiller said in the interview, which was posted in January of this year.
But he also noted that he had received “some dignitary protection training through the Secret Service” when he was on the New York City police force, and he touted the capacity of the private security team he oversees. “We have the best assets money can buy, I can assure you of that, as far as protecting him, his family and his property,” Schiller told the interviewer, Rich Siegel, one of his childhood buddies from New Paltz.
Schiller explained that he has “more than a dozen people” working for him. While he said that “I’m no stranger to putting my hands on people,” thanks to his days in the New York City Police Department’s narcotics units, he added, “Things are different right now. I hire big guys who do all the fighting.”
The identities and numbers of the employees who constitute Trump’s private security operation — as well as other details — are not entirely clear. That’s partly because at least some of the costs — including Schiller’s salary at one point in the campaign — appeared to be split between The Trump Organization corporate structure and Trump’s presidential campaign, and also because the campaign paid many of its security officials, including several who continued working for Trump after the election, through opaque corporate structures.
Schiller himself was paid $181,000 for campaign work from July 2015 through mid-November, according to FEC filings, with some of it coming in the form of in-kind payments, likely indicating money paid to Schiller by The Trump Organization, and possibly reimbursed by Trump personally.
The campaign also paid $50,000 for “security services” during the second half of the year to a company called KS Global Group LLC. While the company, which was registered anonymously in Delaware in October 2015, bears Schiller’s initials, neither he nor the Trump transition team would comment on who is behind it.
Another company, Black Tie Protection Services, which a Trump campaign operative said is linked to Schiller’s team, was paid more than $106,000 in the final four months of the campaign.
And the campaign paid $28,000 for security services to a company called ASIT Consulting, which is owned by a 62-year-old former FBI agent named Don Albracht, who has been known to film and occasionally taunt protesters.
But by far the biggest recipient of Trump security cash is a company called XMark LLC, which boasts on its website that its employees have expertise in surveillance, “close quarter battle” and “tactical shooting skills” and that the firm “provided all PPD [personal protection detail] for Mr. Trump’s campaign travel to include all advance work and coordination with local law enforcement agencies, in support, throughout the country, until being relieved by the United States Secret Service in mid-November of 2015.”
Yet the company continued receiving payments from Trump’s campaign after that point, with $89,000 coming after Election Day. Its officials — including president Eddie Deck and vice president Gary Uher, both of whom are retired FBI agents — were seen policing the crowds at Trump rallies throughout the campaign, as well as during the post-election “Thank You Tour.” The pair — combined with XMark and a retired New York City cop named Michael Sharkey, who also is associated with the company — have been paid nearly $579,000 and counting by the campaign.
Trump transition team sources say the thank you rallies are being funded by Trump’s campaign committee, but that Trump, as president, might headline rallies funded and organized by a still-in-the-works outside group that will be able to accept huge donations unbound by federal campaign limits.
While Trump’s Saturday rally in Mobile, Alabama, was the last one scheduled on the tour, he hinted to the crowd that he intends to resume the rallies as president. “This is the last time I’ll be speaking at a rally for maybe a while. You know, they’re saying as president he shouldn’t be doing rallies, but I think we should, right?” he said, prompting loud applause. “We’ve done everything else the opposite. Well, no, this is the way you get an honest word out, because you can’t give it to [he press] because they’re so dishonest.”
If Trump’s team continues funding the rallies using private money, it would have the right to “decide who can attend their events, including which opinions or speech they deem acceptable by attendees,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
She co-wrote a post in March on the ACLU’s website bemoaning that the removal of protesters of color from this year’s presidential campaign rallies is “certainly not what we want our democracy to look like.”
Nonetheless, Rowland told POLITICO that as long as Trump’s campaign or an outside group “organizes and sets the rules for a private event, and a politician, including the president, is an invited guest, then the host can decide whether and when to revoke attendees’ invitations. That would make them trespassers and allow them to be legally removed.” If the rallies were funded or organized by the government, on the other hand, then only law enforcement could identify protesters for ejection and actually remove them, and only then for breaking the law, she said.
Trump’s private security team has taken full advantage of that latitude, and Deck, who appears to be the leader of the rally security unit, has served as the point of the spear.
Deck, a buff 62-year-old who at various times took to wearing street clothes to blend into rally crowds so he could sleuth out protesters, has drawn repeated complaints about excessive force and ejecting people solely because they don’t look like Trump supporters.
At an April rally in Harrington, Delaware, Deck was captured on video calling for assistance from Delaware state troopers to remove two young African-Americans separately. When one, Anwar Dyer, protested “I didn’t say anything,” Deck responded “I don’t care. You’re leaving. You’re leaving. And if you don’t leave, you’re gonna get hooked up, and I know you don’t want to get hooked up.”
A college student who attended a Trump rally in Tucson, Arizona, in March told POLITICO that Deck “grabbed my arm and angrily pulled me through the crowd,” adding: “I genuinely believe I was kicked out because I am transgender.”
At an August rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, Deck removed an 18-year-old Indian-American Trump supporter named Jake Anantha, who Deck accused of having protested at past Trump rallies. Anantha, a registered Republican who was wearing a Trump shirt, later complained to The Charlotte Observer, “Why are all these white people allowed to attend and I’m not?”
Messages left for Albracht and at XMark email and phone numbers were not returned. And it was not clear whether they would continue working with Trump’s security team in any rallies he might do as president.
Henry Brousseau — who alleges that he was punched in the stomach by Trump supporters after shouting “Black Lives Matter” at a March rally in Louisville, Kentucky — said Trump’s security “did not seem to be interested at all in public safety. They were there to keep the rally on message. They were being speech police.”
Brousseau, who was a high school senior at the time, and two fellow protesters were ejected. And now they’re suing Trump and his campaign, as well as the convention center for failing to provide adequate security, while also claiming that Trump’s calls to “get ’em out” were “calculated to incite violence against the plaintiffs.”
Brousseau said “it is a pattern of silencing his opponents” that is “unpresidential, undemocratic and un-American.”
Another lawsuit was filed three weeks before the election, in part by an African-American man who alleges he was punched, kicked and called racial slurs by Trump supporters at a November 2015 Trump rally in Birmingham, even after security arrived on the scene — all while Trump yelled “get him the hell out of here!” It calls on Trump’s campaign, the convention center and the city of Birmingham “to pay for damages, institute new procedures for security and issue a public apology to those who attended the rally in question and to the residents of Birmingham.”
A third lawsuit alleges that Schiller, Deck, Uher and two other Trump security officers assaulted a handful of protesters during a raucous protest outside the campaign’s Manhattan headquarters in September.
In an affidavit in the case, Schiller acknowledged that he struck one of the protesters in the head. But he says that was because he felt the protester “physically grab me from behind and also felt that person’s hand on my firearm, which was strapped on the right side of my rib cage in a body holster. Based on my years of training, I instinctively reacted by turning around in one movement and striking the person with my open hand.”
The protesters’ lawyers deposed Schiller, Deck and Uher in the days leading up to the Grand Rapids rally.
The judge in June ruled that Trump would not have to provide a deposition in the case, despite the assertion by the protesters’ lawyers that “Trump has had a substantial role in bringing about violence on the part of his security guards.”