Photography by Austen Amacker
The convoy of strategically spaced black limousines crawls to a stop.
His door opened, President-elect Obama—fending off the 20-degree weather with a burgundy scarf, overcoat and leather gloves—emerges.
A member of Obama’s Secret Service detail, Dan Bongino arrived on scene at 2 a.m. to coordinate the Pennsylvania Avenue promenade.
“It’s the most dangerous part,” remembers Bongino, 44. “He’s out of the car.”
Intense training and immersion in pressure-packed situations infuse Secret Service members with the reflexes, readiness and threat-assessment precision of cyborgs.
“The stress is a 10—all the time,” Bongino says. “There’s no 9.6. Always a 10.”
Even still, as Bongino scanned the crowds, corners and structures for anything or anyone that could pose harm to the president-elect—he couldn’t escape the emotion of the moment.
“I didn’t vote for Obama, but I got a little choked up watching—even now… I was honored. This was a magical moment to see,” he says.
The background of his Fox News appearances by satellite-link frequently features a night skyline of buildings at least 30 stories high. His location listed on-screen is Palm City in Martin County, where the four-story height limit is sacrosanct. But it’s no misprint.
Bongino is the author of five books—several bestsellers—and the newly released “Exonerated: The Failed Takedown of President Donald Trump by the Swamp.” He hosts a podcast with more than a quarter million followers and stars in countless YouTube videos. He was in the Secret Service under presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. And he lives in Palm City—for many of the same reasons the rest of us call the Treasure Coast home.
“I love Palm City,” says his wife, Paula Martinez, who is the technical and creative partner in their company, Bongino, Inc.
“I love the people here,” Martinez continues. “I love the environment, I love that my girls can just go out and play—and the food is good.”
Loyal patrons of Stuart restaurants such as Metro Diner, Bonefish Grill and TooJay’s, the Bonginos’ only complaint concerns hours of operation.
“The only downside to Martin County is we have a very long, committed marriage and we have date night,” Bongino says. “We go to the local restaurants and they close so early. We’re New Yorkers.”
The couple appreciates the blend of southern and northeastern influences, culinarily and culturally.
“You can get a good sandwich, you can get a good pizza. I love the weather—I’m a hot-weather guy,” he says. “And I like that it’s conservative here because I’m a conservative guy.”
Fans feel comfortable approaching him, Bongino says.
“At times, people are coming over to our table, and as more people come over, more are asking who we are,” he says “It’s very flattering and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably lying.”
As a local, Bongino praises Martin County government agencies, citing Vicki Davis, supervisor of elections, and Ruth Pietruszewski, tax collector.
“The people in [the Elections Center] could not be nicer,” he says. “You have a question, they answer it. You go online and you can check your voter status. You go to get a [concealed carry] license [at the Tax Collector’s Office], it works. I’m not anti-government; I’m anti-bad government. My personal experience with the local government has been superb.”
Originally from Long Island, Bongino grew up in a difficult and dangerous home environment. His parents divorced; his mom then married a heavyweight boxer who stood over six-feet-tall and weighed 300 pounds. He perpetuated severe abuse upon Bongino and his younger brother.
Bongino was 15 when—with financial help from his dad—he and his brother moved into their own apartment. Interested in neuropsychology, Bongino’s dreams of studying medicine were outweighed by his desire for justice, fueled by the vivid childhood memory of his hulking stepfather cowing when confronted by a petite female police officer.
“I remember going, ‘I have to do this job… You get to change people’s lives, just like that,’” he told the Naples Daily News in 2016.
Starting in 1995, Bongino spent four years at the New York City Police Department. He wanted to join the FBI and even now calls economics his “passion.”
“I know that’s a surprise given the hallow effect that I look like a jock with an IQ of 86,” quips Bongino, who stands 6-foot-1, weighs 230 pounds and nurtures a challenging workout regime.
His father suggested the Secret Service. He gave it a go, knowing that typically only one in 4,000 candidates get hired.
“The interview went extremely well,” Bongino recalls. “The guy I interviewed with was a judo champ and I was into mixed martial arts. Talk about serendipity.”
Love is… A Blind Date
Serendipity also deserves a little credit for how Bongino ended up with his wife. Both working long hours as professionals in New York, they agreed to a blind date arranged by a mutual friend.
“I don’t think either of us were looking forward to it,” says Martinez, then a web developer.
Approaching the appointed meeting place with nominal enthusiasm, Bongino called her to ask how he should pick her out of the crowded Sullivan in Bayside, Queens.
“I’m on the phone with her and said, ‘What are you wearing?’” he recalls. “It was a red top and black pants.”
“I love that you remember that,” Martinez says.
“I thought OMG—this woman is a stunner,” Bongino says. “I was just in love. My second thought was, ‘How in the heck is this woman still single?’”
Bongino started in the Secret Service as a field agent under President Clinton. He witnessed how Clinton’s infectious charisma ingratiated political friends and foes when a room full of young New York Assembly men—Clinton critics—waited to meet with him.
“They were saying, ‘When he comes in I’m gonna tell him this and stick it to him,’” he recalls. “Clinton comes in greeting them by name, patting them on the back. Afterward, I heard one say, ‘I’d never vote for the guy, but I totally get it.’”
Coordinating transportation logistics for President Bush often meant managing local law enforcement during delays caused by the motorcade. A president’s rigid timetable is uncompromising on interruptions—save for select, unexpected encounters when Bush ordered everything to a halt.
“His time was always limited—except with the Gold Star mothers and fathers,” Bongino recalls. “I would be managing the Philly and New York cops, ‘Hold. Hold. Don’t panic.’ You’re not gonna get between him and someone who lost a loved one in combat. His faith is real. His work ethic is real. His compassion is real. He’s the real McCoy.”
Bongino also recalled his fondness for protecting the Obamas.
“His wife and his children were great,” Bongino says. “He was always a gentleman to me—more than kind.”
Although he never served under Trump, Bongino is a strong supporter who says that as a fellow native of Queens, he understands the president’s braggadocio.
“They have these huge personalities—Queens kids—that’s where a lot of that comes from,” he says. “I grew up in Queens, like Trump. Queens kids never had money like the Manhattan kids. But there’s always puffery. Everything’s huge, magnificent—even if it’s not and your car’s 10 years old. But, you’re never as tough as the Brooklyn kids.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Queens College, Bongino later got a master’s degree from City University of New York and an MBA from Penn State University. While the city and NYPD shaped his street smarts, he credits the Secret Service with providing the ground to prep him for his current career.
After all, the war for hearts and minds that comprises today’s national politics caters to fleeting attention spans and commands mastery of the short game. Tweets. Soundbites. Quick clips. Headlines that entice eyeballs and incite clicks.
“When you’re in your 20s and briefing high-level White House staffers on foreign threats, formalities go out the window quickly,” Bongino says. “You learn to speak in bullet points. You learn not to spin people’s wheels, or you will get shut down.”
Getting shut down or shunned in the public arena for a political point of view is a growing problem that defies the long-employed defense that it “happens on both sides,” Bongino says.
“It’s very real,” he says. “Just go to a college campus and put up a sign that you support Trump and watch what happens.”
While he criticizes political figures, Bongino is no armchair quarterback. He mounted three campaigns for national office. He finished second in a 2012 U.S. Senate race in Maryland. He lost the 2016 Republican primary to U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney in Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Toughest to take was the 2014 general election loss in the Democratic stronghold of Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, where the incumbent edged him by 2,774 votes. (A third-party candidate claimed 3,762 ballots.)
“Sometimes when you lose, you just need to get crushed because you ask yourself, ‘What if we’d just knocked on a 100 more doors,” says Bongino, who knocked on 7,000 doors while leading a team that knocked on 55,000.
Even as he remains on-guard and outspoken about the political left, the former Secret Service agent—so accustomed to constant readiness—is at peace with his current life station, geographically and career-wise.
“This is a blessing from God,” Bongino says. “The losses, the good and the bad losses, that wasn’t meant for me. This is. We’re doing far more good than we would have been as one of 535 members on the Hill.”