Secret Service Protection Politicized

That President-elect Biden is shaking up his protective detail isn't unusual. The reason, however, is.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

When I saw the headline “Secret Service to make changes to presidential detail to bring on agents who worked with Biden” on Carol Leonnig WaPo report, I figured it was yet another case of the President-elect wanting to surround himself with people he was comfortable with from the old days. Instead, it’s something more sinister.

The Secret Service is making some staff changes in the presidential detail that will guard President-elect Joe Biden, amid concerns from Biden allies that some current members were politically aligned with President Trump, according to two people familiar with the changes.

As Biden readies his new administration, the Secret Service plans to bring back to the White House detail a handful of senior agents whom Biden knows well from their work more than four years ago guarding him and his family when he was vice president.

Staff changes are typical with the arrival of a new president and are designed to increase the trust and comfort the incoming president feels with his protective agents, who often stand by the president’s side during sensitive discussions and private moments.

But the shifts underway occur at a particularly contentious time, as Trump has blamed his reelection loss on unfounded allegations of voter fraud and has sought to block his administration from treating Biden as the president-elect. Some in the Secret Service also came under criticism during Trump’s tenure for appearing to embrace his political agenda.

For instance, some presidential detail members urged other agents and Secret Service officers not to wear masks on presidential trips this year — against the administration’s own public health guidance — as the president felt wearing masks projected weakness, The Washington Post has reported.

The Secret Service also took the unprecedented step of allowing the former detail leader to temporarily leave his job to become a White House political adviser. Anthony Ornato was hired as White House deputy chief of staff earlier this year. In that role, he helped coordinate a controversial June photo opportunity in which Trump strode defiantly across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible after the park was forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters.

Ornato also helped coordinate numerous rallies across the country during the pandemic, per Trump’s wishes. The mass gatherings were blamed for increasing the spread of the coronavirus in some of the communities where they took place and left many in the ranks of the Secret Service infected or exposed.

So, it makes all the sense in the world for Biden to bring back folks who protected him when he was Vice President. Not only does he have a trusting relationship with them, they already know his quirks and preferences. Anything to make the transition more comfortable is a good thing, allowing him to more smoothly get about the business of governing.

But there’s genuine and reasonable concern that the current detail contains members who are actually hostile to Biden. Further, that the team is carrying out Trump’s bizarre and dangerous political agenda on masks. Their sole job is to protect the person holding the Constitutional powers of President of the United States. It’s not supposed to be a political gig.

I had somehow missed the news that the head of his detail had somehow become Deputy Chief of Staff. That’s troublesome on a number of fronts.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Lounsbury says:

    Your prissy idealisation side is coming out here.

    The heavy security-to-politicisation cross-over with the urging other security detail / agents not to wear masks for what are essentially political reasons is to a rather legit concern in my view. As is the personnel leaving protection to join purely political role.

    A bit of a house-cleaning seems rather in order in fact based not on political views as such but behaviours violating apolitical duty requirements.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Lounsbury: The criticism here is of the politicization that occurred under Trump, not Biden’s perfectly sane response to that.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    It had become apparent during the Obama years that the Service had become dangerously corrupted. Two incidents immediately spring to First was an agent so intoxicated he crashed his vehicle on the way out of the White House and the subsequent scramble to cover it up. The second was an entire detail caught up in a prostitution scandal in a Latin American country and, inevitably, the subsequent effort to cover it up.

    Given that the Trump administration inherited a secretive police force with bad actors riddled throughout, who’s laying odds on the “Of course, they did all they good to reform them,” vs. “They sought out the bad apples, promoted them and used them to help cover up sh*t that Trump, his family and his close associates did”?

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    The Secret Service is probably the last government security agency that has not had its reputation stained by bad behavior. But that was mostly luck, PR and the fact that the agents in the presidential detail, become part of the extended WH ‘family’ and are extended some cover for their foibles. Since everything Trump touches, dies, this isn’t surprising.

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  5. Arm The Homeless says:

    The idea of objective reality and government continuity led by (semi)apolitical professionals is dead. The GOP and its slavishly cultist base will not accept anyone who isn’t a partisan hacks that can prove they’ll kiss any ring and ignore any codified–or uncodified–norm in service of authoritarians.

    At this point I am perfectly fine firing every hire of the past 4 years, professional or otherwise from our government. Let the courts field the lawsuits, but simply state–unequivocably–that the courts can eat a bag of salted dicks, these cretins will no be rehired and any fines levied will be taken from the hides of Red states’ federal funds.

    Unilateral disarmament in the face of dopey fascists that have shown they won’t be beholden to courts or anyone who isn’t already a cultist is stupid. Make these cretins play by their own rules and make it apparent that their judges will be treated the same as Fat Donny treated the Judiciary.

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  6. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Your headline and sub-headline imply that it’s Biden who’s politicizing the Secret Service. I suggest you might want to edit that.

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  7. Kathy says:

    There’s no need to even fire questionable agents on the president’s detail. They can simply be transferred to other areas of the Service.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    If this much is public the situation is probably a lot worse. Because we on OTB are mostly rational people, and Trumpism isn’t, I think we tend to discount how many people actually believe it, and deeply. And law enforcement people tend to self select for a RW mindset. I suspect the FBI, DOJ and other law enforcement agencies are also riddled with MAGAs. ICE and CPB seem to have gone full fascist. Barr seems to have had no difficulty filling his corps of little green men in riot gear. There are a lot of people who deeply believe Biden is Hugo Chavez incarnate and that he illegitimately stole the election and they’re probably disproportionately in law enforcement.

    I’d worry more about Kamala Harris’s detail than about Biden’s.

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  9. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    ICE and CPB seem to have gone full fascist.

    Man, I’d have thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would have held out longer.

    (Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist, it was such an enticing typo…)

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  10. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Oopsie. The worst of it is I googled to check the acronym, then fat fingered it anyway. And no offense taken.

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  11. ImProPer says:

    @Arm The Homeless:

    “The idea of objective reality and government continuity led by (semi)apolitical professionals is dead.”

    I would say more like dying. We have, for better or worse, the ability to destroy all of life on earth. I hope what you say, for the sake of humanity, never comes true.

    “The GOP and its slavishly cultist base will not accept anyone who isn’t a partisan hacks that can prove they’ll kiss any ring and ignore any codified–or uncodified–norm in service of authoritarians”

    True, and I hope that this serves as a lesson, rather than a template for future idealists of other leanings

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  12. Lounsbury says:

    @James Joyner: Sorry I misunderstood

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  13. Owen says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: You fell for the clickbait too? 😉

  14. Gustopher says:

    Further, that the team is carrying out Trump’s bizarre and dangerous political agenda on masks. Their sole job is to protect the person holding the Constitutional powers of President of the United States. It’s not supposed to be a political gig.

    Secret Service is going to be background to a lot of political theater — it’s the nature of the job when protecting a politician. There is a political element to that, even if carried out in a dispassionate, apolitical way.

    I might even say that it makes sense to have a political test for some of these positions — I wouldn’t want Biden’s security detail to be composed of QAnon freaks, and I think it would be non-optimal for our continued Democratic Republic to have Trump guarded by someone who thinks that in a just world he would be put to death and has taken to calling himself Brutus and knows the Ides of every month… I’m not sure where the line between able to do the job and a direct threat is, so… I’m ok with a fair bit of leeway.

    That said, they should not have been pressured to not wear masks, and they should have resisted that pressure. They should also not be coordinating political events.

    Officially non-partisan, even if they are actually partisan.

  15. JohnSF says:

    What you need is the Ravenmaster of the Yeomen of the Guard.
    Or possibly the Harbinger and the Axekeeper of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms. Battle honours; 1513 Guinegate; aka The Battle of the Spurs.
    (They may sound funny; they’re mostly ex-elite regiment NCOs. NTBFW.)

  16. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    That’s the Yeomen who are the ex-NCOs; the Gentlemen, of course, are ex-officers.
    The subtleties of the British system, you see.

    Unless in Scotland, when the formal bodyguard is the Royal Company of Archers.

  17. Ken_L says:

    The utterly unhinged Dan Bongino’s ranting on Fox should have disillusioned anyone who believed the Secret Service was composed of Clint Eastwood clones, just as Mike Flynn should have opened the eyes of people convinced the US military was totally apolitical.