WASHINGTON – At some point Friday night, with angry demonstrators gathered just north of the White House, the Secret Service took the unusual step of moving President Trump Donald out of the executive mansion proper and into a secure underground facility. It was understandable, given the violence and vandalism that had accompanied protests in Minnesota earlier in the week and erupted near the White House, as well. But it offered an odd contrast with Trump’s tweets on Saturday morning, which made a particular point of noting that he was watching the conflict between his security team and the protesters.
It also raised a question: The White House has an underground bunker? It does. In fact, it apparently has more than one – and other ways in which the president can be protected.
Beneath the White House’s East Wing is the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, built during World War II as a protective measure for President Franklin Roosevelt. It’s where then-Vice President Richard Cheney went during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Former first lady Laura Bush described being evacuated to the facility that same day in a book published in early 2010.
“I was hustled inside and downstairs through a pair of big steel doors that closed behind me with a loud hiss, forming an airtight seal,” she wrote. “I was now in one of the unfinished subterranean hallways underneath the White House, heading for the PEOC, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, built for President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. We walked along old tile floors with pipes hanging from the ceiling and all kinds of mechanical equipment. The PEOC is designed to be a command center during emergencies, with televisions, phones, and communications facilities.”
She describes being taken to a small conference room with a large table. The National Archives later released photos of members of the George W. Bush administration in that room that day.
If the New York Times’ reporting about Trump’s movement on Friday is accurate, it’s likely that this was the facility the president was taken to. According to Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, Trump was taken “to the underground bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks,” likely referring to the attacks of Sept. 11.
The other, larger, newer facility wasn’t in place that day.
In fact, it was built because of lessons learned after the 9/11 attacks.
Ronald Kessler, who wrote about the new construction in his 2018 book, “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game,” spoke with The Washington Post by phone on Monday to describe the project.
“After that attack, the national security people recognized that that just is not going to cut it,” Kessler said, referring to the old facility. “That’s just not sufficient.”
“The idea was, before that, that if there were a nuclear attack or something – biological, radiological attack – that the White House staff and the president’s people could be evacuated to some remote location at West Virginia or Pennsylvania,” he continued. “But then they realized after the 9/11 attack that they could never leave Washington, certainly by vehicle, because all the roads were clogged. It would take too long. And even by helicopter, it would take – it would be very risky, given that the country was under attack. So they came up with this scheme to create a totally separate facility, an underground bunker under the North Lawn.”
In 2010, the General Services Administration began a large project outside the section of the White House where the Oval Office and offices of the president’s senior advisers are located. The GSA insisted that the work was meant to replace existing infrastructure at the White House, but the scale and secrecy of the project belied that.
“The GSA went to great lengths to keep the work secret,” the Associated Press reported in 2012, when construction neared completion, “not only putting up the fence around the excavation site but ordering subcontractors not to talk to anyone and to tape over company info on trucks pulling into the White House gates.”
“It’s a bunker, right?” The Post’s Christian Davenport wrote in 2011. “It’s gotta be a bunker.”
According to Kessler, it was.
“What it consists of is five stories deep into the ground with its own air supply and food supply,” he said, noting that few details are known. “It is sealed off from the aboveground area so that if there were, for example, a nuclear attack, the radiation would not penetrate into this bunker, which has very thick concrete walls and that sort of thing.”
The purpose is to serve as a command center and living quarters for the president and other members of the president’s staff. The air supply is self-contained, Kessler said, and the facility is stocked with enough food to last for months.
When Trump arrived at the White House in 2017, he and a few select officials were given a tour of the facility, which remains unstaffed, a sort of subterranean “break glass in case of emergency” option.
Kessler pointed out that escaping the White House was still an option. There are existing tunnels (like the one Laura Bush employed) under the building, including at least two that leave the mansion entirely. One leads to the Treasury Building and, eventually, up to an unmarked entrance on H Street. The other emerges onto the South Lawn, where the president can access Marine One if needed.
For all the drama surrounding the events of Friday night, Trump’s physical safety was secured in a comparatively unexciting way: in a secure room under the East Wing of the White House. Assuming it exists, the five-story, self-contained facility closer to the Oval Office remains unoccupied, as it probably has since it was built.
As far as we know.