Foreign temp workers at Mar-a-Lago raise another security concern
Like 38 other hospitality businesses in Palm Beach County, Mar-a-Lago is waiting to be told by the federal government just how many foreign temporary workers it can hire to serve members and guests during the winter tourist season.
Former President Trump's private Palm Beach club, and other locations such as the nearby Breakers Palm Beach Resort, for years routinely applied for these visas to fill low-wage, low-skilled jobs.
This year, the foreign visa program for temporary help — county-based private clubs, hotels and resorts have asked for a collective 2,266 workers — is especially important. The county's labor market, with unemployment hovering at just 3%, is especially tight with an almost 2-for-1 ratio in the number of open jobs to available unemployed workers.
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But Mar-a-Lago's labor request comes as the private club is at the center of a political scandal and legal firestorm over Trump's possession of top-secret documents. The discovery and seizure of those files, numbering hundreds of pages, has heaped scrutiny on the already fraught security risks presented by a private business that alternately serves as the official residence of a former commander-in-chief.
The presence of foreign workers, in the past and again starting this fall, adds to the glare on Trump's estate, which one national security analyst said already had an uncomfortable flow of people, access and volume.
Lindsay Rodman, a former White House fellow who was director for defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council, quips that Mar-a-Lago has the aura of "a classic James Bond" scene just waiting for "a heist" of secret files.
"Having tons of international guests coming back and forth from a poorly secured area puts any documents that might be found there at high risk," said Rodman, who now teaches national security, cybersecurity and foreign relations at George Washington University Law School. "It does not sound like the type of security precautions they were taking had anything to do with what we would have been seeing in the White House, the Pentagon or any of the other places I've worked with."
Mar-a-Lago asks for scores of foreign workers ahead of winter season
Mar-a-Lago this year requested to filla record 91 positions with foreign workersfor this coming year, up from 80 in 2019, according to CareerSource, the county's nonprofit job placement agency.
In addition to Mar-a-Lago, Trump also has two other Palm Beach County properties, Trump International Golf Club in unincorporated West Palm Beach and Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.
This year, as in years past, Trump is requesting permission to hire seasonal foreign workers for these properties, too: 14 for Trump International and 10 for Trump National.
The Mar-a-Lago jobs include cooks, servers and housekeepers. The workers are needed through the balance of the winter social season — Mar-a-Lago generally operates between late October and mid-May.
The hired hands will cater to the club's members, including the many 1 percenters that descend on Palm Beach for the social season. And they will help handle what is a varied calendar of events.
Mar-a-Lago is a highly desired location for weddings, philanthropic galas, and political fund-raising luncheons and dinners.
The request for foreign workers is a two-step process involving two federal agencies.
Trump resort hired undocumented workers
First, the U.S. Department of Labor reviews the ask by private businesses. A Labor Department spokesman said the agency is limited to evaluating whether the need for foreign labor is warranted, meaning Mar-a-Lago's request likely will be certified.
But approval by the Department of Homeland Security also is required before a business can secure foreign workers, the Labor Department spokesman said. DHS must approve the H2B visas for temporary foreign workers.
It's not clear whether DHS is giving added scrutiny to Mar-a-Lago's request, given the ongoing investigation into Trump and the location of all classified documents or presidential records.The department did not respond to a request for comment.
How might foreign workers seeking temp jobs in America be vetted?
But a specialist in private security, who has worked with former federal agents in various law-enforcement branches, said government agencies conduct fairly extensive vetting of foreign temporary workers. And in Palm Beach County, the employers hiring them will do some background checking, too.
"There are two stages to this," said Ross Thompson, a longtime professional in private security who is now CEO of COVAC Global in West Palm Beach.
Since 9/11, Thompson said, the foreign worker visa system has become exponentially more stringent. For example, a current passport contains all sorts of data, includingnames, aliases andaddresses, that will then be checked against databases run by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol.
That search is largely handled by the National Vetting Center, a unit of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Thompson said. The U.S. embassy and the State Department's consular offices in the applicant's home country also will conduct thorough interviews.
"Based off that, the government is going to make a decision on whether you are a threat or not," Thompson said. "The second piece of that is whether or not you are going to actually do what you say you are going to do. Come here, work, get paid and leave. That's another big consideration they are looking at."
Thompson also notes that the choosing of employees by local hospitality businesses and companies is not a random act. He said most often the person who is being considered is a family member or a friend of an existing or former worker — or someone known to a U.S. citizen or green card holder.
"There's some degree of connection," Thompson said. "You can draw a line from one person to another."
Are hotel workers some of America's best spies?
Rodman's joke about a 007-like effort at Mar-a-Lago may not be out of the realm of possibility.
Thompson said U.S. intelligence officials and foreign governments often seek out hotel workers, whether a housekeeper or food-service worker, as gatherers of information because they have access to items with DNA on them.
"If you wanted to go spy on foreign nationals, if you wanted to get information on foreign nationals, if you wanted to collect DNA on foreign nationals, the first group of people you are going to recruit for you is hotel staff," he said.
A used cigarette butt, a table-setting utensil, and even a urine or stool sample can provide critical information on a foreign leader or official, such as whether they have a disease such as cancer or Parkinson's.
An example of a local data-gathering event, he said, was the visit of China's president, Xi Jinping to Palm Beach County in April 2017. Xi and his entourage stayed at the beachfront Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan, above seven miles south of Mar-a-Lago. Trump hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago during the trip.
"If you don't think there wasn't any intelligence collection with the Chinese president and the delegation at Eau Palm Beach (hotel) by U.S. intelligence, you are sorely mistaken," he said.
Analyst: Straight line from divulging data to endangering an American
In that context,last month's search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago raises fresh questions and concernsabout security at Mar-a-Lago.
An Aug. 29 federal court filing by the U.S. Department of Justice said classified documents at Mar-a-Lago were moved and hidden, and that some even ended up in Trump's desk in an office at Mar-a-Lago.
A warrant indicates the search was conducted in connection with, among other things, the Espionage Act. One statute states that people legally granted access to national defense documents or classified information are subject to punishment should they improperly retain that information.
That's what worries the U.S. national security community, said Rodman.
By their nature, security officials and analysts will not air their grievances, she said. But Rodman believes the national security workforce is worried "not just about the divulging of government secrets at a high level" but also those that involve intelligence gathering by people.
"Those have the potential to really harm individual lives," said Rodman, a U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan. "Those are the ones in which you can draw a straight line from divulging that information to endangering an American who's currently putting their life on the line for the American people."
Contrast the potential accessibility of Mar-a-Lago to the National Security Council, or the White House's West Wing and Oval Office, where access is restricted according to various levels of security clearance.
She said security clearance there, and in Washington in general, is a painstakingly thought-out process to make sure "those at the very, very high levels of government, senior leadership" have the information they need to make "fully informed decisions that affect our national security for the American people."
Presidential chit-chat, selfies and missiles: Security a longtime worry
Concerns about security at Mar-a-Lago have been ongoing since Trump first became president.
During his presidency, Trump's Palm Beach visits resulted in the public display of photos showing administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, photos of Trump and Japan's prime minister during a North Korean missile launch, and even photos of the briefcase containing U.S. nuclear launch codes.
At Mar-a-Lago, Social Security numbers of all visitors were not generally required in advance as they are at the White House. The names of Mar-a-Lago visitors are not entered into a public log.
Sometimes, guests overheard Trump family gossip or engage in chit-chat with the Secret Service, attendees said. It was easy to blend in with all the other scions in the room if one is wearing a tuxedo or gown, attendees said.
During the course of Trump's presidency, club members eventually were required to make reservations to step foot onto the club property, even for drinks.
But once there, it was business as usual. Members could linger in the main living room or at patio dinner tables, watching Trump and his entourage move about the place. Club members could bring guests, too.
In 2019, congressional Democrats demanded to know the security set up at the president's self-described "Southern White House." In particular, they asked the FBI what additional steps would be "needed to detect and deter adversary governments or their agents" from conducting electronic surveillance or gaining access to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.
The Secret Service issued a statement explaining that management at Mar-a-Lago, not Secret Service agents, decides who is welcome at the club.
"The Mar-a-Lago club management determines which members and guests are granted access to the property," according to the statement. "While the Secret Service does not determine who is permitted to enter the club, our agents and officers conduct physical screenings to ensure no prohibited items are allowed onto the property."
Trump blasts search with 'drain the swamp' refrain
Trump has railed against the FBI seizure, floating theories about papers related to former President Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran and assailing the FBI for a photograph Trump said is intended to make it look like he littered the secret documents on his carpet.
"This is the time, after many years of lawbreaking & unfairness, to clean things up," he posted on his social media platform. "All things for a reason. DRAIN THE SWAMP!!!"
Last week, however, Trump attorney Alina Habba seemed tounderscore the laxity of Mar-a-Lago security, including in Trump's office, where several classified documents were found. During an interview with Fox News, she said she had been in Trump's office, and he “frequently” had guests in the room.
Rodman fears it could "damage morale" for the national security workforce to see court documents alleging in detail how the very documents they so zealously defend were treated with recklessness at the former president's club.
"There is a culture among national security professionals … where there is a very strong professional ethic about taking care of this information," she said. "They understand this not only has the potential to endanger the national security of the United States, which is what we have devoted our lives to protecting. Revealing sources and methods endanger individuals. Lives can be lost, livelihoods can also be lost, because of the disclosure of this information."
Alexandra Clough is a business writer at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach her at email@example.com. Twitter: @acloughpbp. Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.