The president and first lady travel in an 'imperial bubble' where the US government books entire floors of hotels, closes down airports, and shuts down highways. Here's what it's like.

Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump waves from his motorcade vehicle after departing Trump Tower on August 16, 2017 in New York City.
  • When members of the US presidential administration travel, their trips require more than booking flights and a hotel.
  • Multiple security departments send scores of agents to protect the travelling official, and the Secret Service often visits cities months ahead of time to nail down logistics.
  • The layers of security, aides, and press that insulate top government officials during such trips has been called an “imperial bubble.”
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When the top members of a sitting presidential administration travel, they do so within what The New York Times once described as an “imperial bubble.”

The collective of press, security, and aides that surround top members of the administration during their time outside of Washington, DC follow carefully designed guidelines to ensure a safe and efficient trip.

From the White House to ritzy hotels and high-profile appearances across the world, this is what it’s like inside the “imperial bubble.”

For the president, first lady, and secretary of state, travel is a big part of the job. But it’s no small task to ensure their time away from Washington, DC is safe and seamless.

Secret Service agents take the lead on travel logistics, often arriving months beforehand to clear the airspace, map out a motorcade route, identify hospitals, and other secure locations in case of an attack.

Source: The Oregonian

Once the trip begins, security agents are with the subject every step of the way.

A select number of reporters and photographers known as the “protective press pool” travel close to, but separate from, the official posse of security and top aides to capture the statements and stops made by the official during the trip.

Source: The New York Times

To ensure a stress-free flight, national agencies announce temporary flight restrictions days before the scheduled trip to restrict movement in a given area when the president, vice president, or other security official travels.

During presidential travel, the restriction’s “inner ring” is approximately 10 miles, in which other aircraft cannot fly below 18,000 feet or land at any airports. Aircraft can fly through, but not loiter in the “outer rings,” which span approximately 30 miles.

For a travelling Vice President or similar lower official, restrictions spark a temporary “no fly” zone for when the subject is arriving, departing, or at the airport.

Sometimes Air Force One lands to a public audience; other times it lands for a reception with the hosting leader.

Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesA crowd cheered alongside Air Force One, with President Donald Trump on board, lands and taxis ahead of a rally at the Tupelo Regional Airport, November 26, 2018 in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Whichever is the case, the travelling security team springs into action right away.

The subject is then led to a motorcade that usually includes around 20 vehicles, which freely cruise down closed highways to save time and safety concerns.

Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty ImagesThe presidential motorcade drives east on Interstate 30 toward Dallas Love Field Airport March 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

Source: Wired

Local law enforcement provides another layer for the motorcade on the way to the official’s first destination, and any locations after that.

The Secret Service’s counter-assault team is the most heavily equipped layer of the motorcade, and ride alongside other forces behind the car carrying the administration member.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty ImagesMembers of a Secret Service counter-assault team are seen escorting US President Barack Obama while travelling to Marine Corps Base Hawaii to visit the gym December 30, 2015 in Kailua, Hawaii.

A former agent told The Washington Post that the counter-assault team not only scans the perimeter for potential threats, but is also poised with combat vests and massive rifles to “lay down an unbelievable amount of suppressive fire” in the event of an attack on the motorcade.

Official visits are announced ahead of time and usually attract onlookers across the destination city. Though protesters could pose a security concern, the Secret Service identifies credible threats ahead of time and can warn them to stay away.

Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty ImagesThe motorcade carrying U.S. President Donald Trump leaves for Capella Hotel on June 12, 2018 in Singapore.

Source: The Oregonian

Hotels get anywhere from weeks to months of notice for VIP visits, like those by an administration member, and assign all amenities in accordance with their team’s specifications.

Brent Lewis/Getty Images

Franck Arnold, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Toronto, told Business Insider that VIP guests such as administration members choose details including which rooms or suites work best based on the staff they have in tow.

Brandon Barré, courtesy of Ritz Carlton Toronto

Despite the necessity to accommodate security, these large demands are often a lightning rod for reports on massive hotel bills, like when first lady Melania Trump racked up $US174,000 in hotel bills on a 12-hour trip to Toronto.

The first lady also sparked reports that gawked at a $US95,000 bill from a Cairo hotel where she didn’t even spend the night.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty ImagesFirst Lady Melania Trump visits the Giza Pyramids and sphinx on October 6, 2018, during the final stop of her week-long trip through four countries in Africa.


Exorbitant travel bills are common. Former President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama sparked criticism when their separate trips to Palm Springs and Aspen on the same weekend with security in tow cost a combined $US272,192.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty ImagesThe Obama family is pictured together in April 2015. From left to right: Malia, Michelle, Barack and Sasha.

Source: Newsweek

A former security agent told the Oregonian that in addition to the entire floor on which the official stays, the floors above and below will be cleared out, meaning three whole floors are rented for the duration of the visit, ramping up costs.

Ross Rheaume courtesy of the Ritz Carlton TorontoThe exterior of the Ritz Carlton Toronto, where first lady Melania Trump was expected to make a stop during her time in the city.

Source: The Oregonian

Security measures can impact the public’s experience in the sky, a hotel, or even traffic during an official’s visit. The flight and motorcade Trump has been known to take to his New Jersey golf club often causes gridlock for aircraft and motorists.

Source: North Jersey, NJ1015

VIP guests and their teams also dictate the level of access the public has during their trip, including entering and the exiting hotels, Arnold said.

Yuri Gripas-Pool/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump leave after dinner at Trump International Hotel on April 7, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Secret Service and Presidential Protective Division agents keep a perimeter around the president at all times, sometimes with local police providing an extra layer during public appearances.

Agents are ready to step in if anyone — or animal — gets too close.

Though Air Force One is the president’s most iconic mode of travel, there’s a backup plane just like it that comes on the trips to ensure the president or first lady has a sure exit strategy.

Source: The White House

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