Bill Clinton liked to go jogging around Washington.
Barack Obama would stroll from the White House to a nearby Five Guys burger joint.
So while some expressed alarm after President Donald Trump stepped out of his armored SUV to greet supporters on his way to the airport on Sunday, former Secret Service agents only grimaced.
“While the Secret Service would certainly prefer the president never, ever do that, they all do that,” said former Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, who served for 21 years and is the author of the upcoming book, “I Am a Secret Service Agent.” “It’s a Secret Service nightmare, but agents are trained for that.”
Former agents say such impromptu stops — known as “off the record” events — are more common than most people believe, and obviously riskier than staying in places that have been screened by the president’s security detail.
But because they’re random, they carry an element of surprise that works to agents’ advantage: Bad guys don’t know they’ll be there, either. The track record bears it out (knock on wood): Presidential assassins all knew where the presidents would be when they pulled the trigger.
“I know it seems to the untrained eye that it’s dangerous — What if this? What if that?” said former agent Dan Bongino, who was on the presidential detail under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama and now lives in Martin County. “The reality is, (bad guys are) not there, ready for an attack and an assault on the president.”
That doesn’t mean some presidents don’t knowingly walk into potentially dangerous situations.
During the Rodney King riots, Emmett remembered when President George H.W. Bush, who wasn’t prone to “off-the-record” stops, wanted to see the devastation in Los Angeles in 1992.“We thought he was just going to drive around,” Emmett said. Instead, “He got out of the limo and was walking through south-central LA in a Brooks Brothers suit, with buildings still smoldering and store owners on the roofs with shotguns. You had people that close to the president with live weapons.”
That’s not quite Bingham Island, the narrow stretch of land between Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and West Palm Beach, where the president stopped, waved and pointed at supporters before getting out and shaking a few hands on Sunday. He even invited seven supporters back to his mansion on Saturday for a brief chat.
Secret Service agents had to push back the crowds, and they scrambled to make sure the door to the president’s armored SUV stayed open while he was out of the car. A U.S. Secret Service spokeswoman on Monday declined to comment on Trump’s stop.
Agents said they can do little but protest when the most powerful person on the planet wants to get out and talk to people or stop at a diner for a meal.
“You can give a suggestion. You can give advice. But ultimately it’s up to the president,” said 29-year agent Danny Cecere, who retired in 2003.
President Jimmy Carter liked to walk to the South Lawn of the White House and talk to visitors on the other side of the fence, for example, he said.
“Park police on the outer perimeter, they didn’t like it,” Cecere said.
The agents said that having local police on the scene is critical to keeping presidents safe when they choose to stop somewhere unscheduled. When Trump stopped on Sunday, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies were helping keep people back.
Emmett recalled driving around Moscow when Clinton asked to get out of the car and talk to a crowd of people.
“That seems a little bit dangerous,” Emmett said, but Clinton wandered into the crowd anyway.
His fears lessened when “we were immediately surrounded by these very large and menacing-looking policemen in police coats,” he said.
Bongino said even when stops seem impromptu, they often aren’t. Usually, agents have scouted out the lemonade stand where a president wants to stop.
You’re making sure “it’s not the Osama bin Laden school of lemonade-making or something,” Bongino said.
But the agents said that if Trump keeps stopping to talk to supporters along his route between Palm Beach International Airport and the winter White House at Mar-a-Lago, it could raise the level of danger significantly.
“Doing the exact same routine, time after time after time, you’re giving them your playbook,” Emmett said.
For that reason, Bongino expects Trump will start taking advantage of his newly constructed helipad. He didn’t use Marine One this weekend, though.
Not only are helicopters safer than being on the ground, he said, past presidents used them whenever possible so they didn’t disrupt traffic.
“Presidents are politicians,” Bongino said. “The last thing a president in a swing state wants to do is disrupt the locals.”