The commandant of the Coast Guard on Tuesday said recreational paddlers can use the Maryland side of the Potomac River when the president or senior administration officials visit Trump National Golf Club, amending a controversial policy that kicked boats off the river whenever the president was golfing.
Adm. Paul F. Zukunft announced the surprise policy change while testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“As long as they stay to the Maryland side of the Potomac River, they can pass clearly when the security zone is in effect,” Zukunft said. The Trump National Golf Club is in Sterling, Va., along the river that divides Virginia and Maryland.
In a minute-long exchange with Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, Zukunft said the Coast Guard is working with the American Canoe Association and other groups to allow access for recreational paddlers. Boaters and paddlers have been infuriated by the shore-to-shore shutdown, which has taken place intermittently since March whenever the president or “high ranking” government officials tee off.
“We listened and we are making that accommodation to the public,” Zukunft said.
DeFazio wrote to the Coast Guard last week saying the newly established security zone along approximately two miles of the Potomac that borders the golf course is unfair to those who use the river.
The letter was co-signed by Rep. John Garamendi (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation.
“I’m pleased that the admiral took our letter and concerns to heart,” DeFazio said in an interview after the hearing. “It’s a good day for the little guy.”
Zukunft’s comments were unexpected because Vice Adm. Charles W. Ray, the deputy commandant for operations at the Coast Guard, responded to DeFazio and Garamendi’s letter Sunday evening with a letter of his own, but did not mention the policy change.
Ray said the Secret Service decides which government officials warrant the extra security. The Coast Guard has not received “a list of particular officials” from the Secret Service, he said.
DeFazio said that the Secret Service’s involvement gave him no comfort because agents who protect presidents “are impossible to deal with,” and that the point is moot now that Maryland-side access will be granted.
However, he said, Trump could eliminate these concerns by playing “better golf courses” instead of “advertising his properties all the time.”
Ray explained that the Coast Guard lets the public know when a security zone will be in effect through marine radio addresses, officers on the scene and news releases. Enforcement costs “are minimal” and already allocated through routine operations, he said.
It is unclear how the partial closure of the river will be delineated or enforced.
Over the weekend, Coast Guard personnel at two river access points on the Maryland shore and on the river told boaters — canoers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders — they could use the river as long as they stayed along the Maryland shore.
Adam Van Grack, a Bethesda lawyer who chairs the U.S. Olympic organization for kayakers and canoers, called the accommodation a step in the right direction, but said that until the policy is changed in writing, the Coast Guard has the right to deny access entirely.
He represents Calleva, a summer camp and outfitter that launches its watercraft at Riley’s Lock, a popular embarkation point in Maryland that also is used by a kayaking program for wounded and disabled veterans.
“There needs to be clarity,” he said. “Unless and until we see something in writing, those problems still exist. They missed the boat on this one.”
The Coast Guard is accepting public comment on the security plan until Aug. 9. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 300 comments had been submitted.
In his testimony, Zukunft noted that a lack of foliage near the golf course could pose a security threat.
DeFazio and Garamendi, in their letter, called that “ironic,” noting that “the Trump Organization cut down a stand of mature trees along the shoreline in 2010 that would have obscured the line of sight and mitigated security concerns.”
In the interview, DeFazio said there is a clear view from the river of a few holes “because Trump slaughtered the riparian vegetation a number of years ago, which in my state would be illegal. I don’t know what the rules are in Virginia.”
Ray, the Coast Guard official, wrote in his letter that with or without trees, the Coast Guard would support Secret Service efforts to protect government officials.
Susan Sherrod, chairwoman of the Canoe Cruisers Association, acknowledged that the president and other government officials must be “protected absolutely,” but considers the broad security zone excessive.
“Our little kayaks are lousy attack platforms,” she said. “If someone wanted to attack the president, attacking from the water on a kayak is the stupidest thing you could do.”