Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense
Dems blast river closure aimed at protecting Trump while golfing
A pair of House Democats are up in arms over a new proposal that would close a broad section of the Potomac River in the name of protecting President Trump while he's golfing on the Northern Virginia course that bears his name.
Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.) say the new Coast Guard proposal goes too far to inconvenience recreational boaters who use that popular stretch of the river - including a kayak program aiding wounded war veterans.
"That's a very heavily utilized part of the Potomac," DeFazio told The Hill on Thursday. "Closing the entire river randomly - because the president's schedule isn't announced in advance - would be incredibly disruptive. It'll hurt commercial outfitters; it's going to ruin people's vacations. ... And I think it's unnecessary.
"The most polite alternative would be for Trump to recognize that he's screwing up other people's vacations and lives."
On Wednesday, DeFazio, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, and Garamendi, the ranking member of the Committee's Maritime subpanel, wrote to Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, urging him to seek another plan that would both ensure Trump's safety while also maintaining public access to at least a part of the river.
"Time and again President Trump, with the aid of the Secret Service, has disregarded the needs of the general public for his own personal benefit and convenience," the lawmakers wrote. "We implore you not to allow the President's frequent leisure activities to take away access to the river regularly enjoyed by wounded veterans, and other kayakers, boaters, jet skiers, and anglers."
Zukunft is scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee on Tuesday to discuss the Coast Guard's infrastructure needs. But DeFazio said he should also expect to face questions about the new Potomac restrictions.
"He will have had the letter for a week," DeFazio said. "He should be able to give us something in an open session."
Published on July 10 in the federal register, the Coast Guard's proposed rule would close roughly 2 miles of the Potomac - "from shoreline to shoreline" - where it abuts the Trump National Golf Club, the president's 36-hole resort that lies about 30 miles upstream from Washington. The purpose, the rule states, is "to protect high-ranking United States officials and the public, mitigate potential terrorist acts, and enhance public and U.S. navigable waterway safety and security."
The rule was first reported Monday by The Washington Post.
David French, chief spokesman at Washington's Coast Guard headquarters, downplayed the significance of the proposed restrictions, saying the Coast Guard has regularly established maritime security zones to protect high-level officials. That includes zones in Maine, where the Bush family owns a vacation home; in Hawaii, where President Obama would frequently vacation; and in Florida, where Trump's oceanside Mar-a-Lago resort has become known as his "Southern White House."
"It's nothing new, and I don't think people should be alarmed. They're not going to be kicked off the river," he said by phone on Friday. "It's just during times of enforcement, they'll have to stay out of the boundary areas."
But because the Potomac boundaries encompass the entire width of the river at points, critics are quick to note that the plan would effectively block passage downstream during those periods. Echoing many of the public comments, DeFazio suggested a scenario where the river is closed along the Virginia side, where Trump's course sits, but retains an open channel on the opposite bank where boats could pass.
"The river's pretty wide there. You can put a Coast Guard detachment - with a Zodiac [boat] with a machine-gun attachment - on the other side in case they see a threatening paddle boarder," he said. "I think there are alternatives here."
French described a system where boaters could seek a Coast Guard "escort" through the restricted zone.
"As you paddle up to the zone, usually the law enforcement officers will be there to stop you. And then you seek the permission, and if that's granted they escort you on through - operations permitting," he said. "They'll only be able to request straight transit through, they won't be able to loiter in the area."
French also noted that the Coast Guard is still seeking comments, and the boundaries may be adjusted to reflect public concerns.
"We look at all of that when we make the decision to actually establish a permanent security zone," he said.
As of Friday evening, there were almost 200 public comments on the rule, almost all of them critical of the Coast Guard's plan.
"This is so upsetting," reads one comment typical of the critiques. "Our politicians serve the people, not the other way around."
Edward Gertler, a well-known area kayaker, also registered his opposition, wondering why Trump's course demands stricter security than other potential targets surrounding the nation's capital.
"The security zone around Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant is about 300 yards," he wrote. "Why is this much larger zone needed on the Potomac?"
The comment window ends on Aug. 9.
There's a lingering question about how frequently the river might be closed under the rule, largely because it's unclear which "high-ranking" officials would trigger the additional precautions. It's a clarification the Democrats are seeking from Zukunft.
"We don't know what that is," DeFazio said.
There's also the question of how recreational users would be warned of the temporary closures. French said the Coast Guard would likely issue news releases specifying the dates and times when river access would be denied - a system in place for the "busy Florida waterways."
"We'll probably end up going that similar route," he said. "It will usually contain the contact info for requesting the [escort] transit."
The Democrats are also revisiting a years-old controversy surrounding the golf course: Trump's 2010 decision to clear-cut the trees along the course's bank to provide river views for the golfers. DeFazio, who said he's golfed the course twice with the National Democratic Club, said the absent vegetation could have acted as a protective shield diminishing the need for the river to be closed.
"He was supposed to replant," DeFazio said. "And he didn't."