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Protecting the President: Secret Weapons and a Hefty Price Tag

by Cynthia McFadden, William Arkin and Kevin Monahan /  / Updated 
Two officers, left, with the New York Police Department's counterterrorism unit watch as a Secret Service K-9 dog outside Trump Tower.Mark Lennihan / AP

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To the average American, presidential protection conjures up the image of a stone-faced Secret Service agent hovering near the commander-in-chief's podium or running alongside his limo.

But the effort to keep any president safe once he's in office goes far beyond that, with heavy military involvement, a fleet of aircraft, unseen weapons, drones — and a very hefty price-tag.

NBC News has reviewed planning and budget documents — many of them top secret — that lay out the crown jewels of presidential protection. The operation, especially in the post-9/11 era, is the most sophisticated protection and communications system in the world.

With President Trump planning to spend significant time in New York and Florida, the logistics of keeping him safe and able to govern will get more challenging and the costs will only go higher, experts tell NBC News.

"Every time the president leaves the White House, we have to move the White House with him," said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent who has protected every living president.

Two officers, left, with the New York Police Department's counterterrorism unit watch as a Secret Service K-9 dog outside Trump Tower.Mark Lennihan / AP

"It's logistics on top of logistics. It's thinking about every problem in advance and coming up with every type of contingency plan that you can think of."

Confidential budget and planning documents reviewed by NBC News detail the precautions taken to ensure the president survives any kind of threat — from contaminated water to incoming missiles.

When he moves, a minimum of seven airplanes may be involved:

  • Air Force One, with the code name Comet, goes, along with two backups.
  • The presidential limo, nicknamed The Beast, and two backups — all sealed to withstand chemical or biological weapons — are loaded onto giant C-17 cargo planes.
  • And 22 armored SUVs and vans are airlifted to transport Secret Service and White House staff.

Five helicopters — including Marine One for the president — also are packed up, along with other presidential trappings like the White House podium.

A team of Delta commandos and FBI hostage rescue agents are also deployed with the president. A military aide with the nuclear football travels, too.

Whenever the President is outside Washington, three secret military bunkers, two airborne command posts and a top-secret mobile truck-mounted command center go on alert.

Surveillance drones and armed aircraft will be added to the mix when he is in New York, a senior intelligence official said.

An unarmed MQ-9 Reaper droneU.S. Dept. of Defense

"Since 9/11 we've seen such a substantial change in the number of threats and the sophistication of those threats that DOD has increased its participation," said Gen. General Victor "Gene" Renuart, the former head of Northern Command.

"Certainly we can lend some of the very sophisticated technical tools that we have and we've developed out of combat,"

It doesn't come cheap. The current price tag is $5 billion a year. If Trump decides to spend weekends at Trump Tower, it will cost even more to build and maintain a security structure.

"We're not in a suburb of Chicago. We are in the middle of Manhattan. We're in the epicenter of the city," Wackrow said.

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