SOTU and the ‘Security’ Pretext

The Speaker is well within her rights to make Trump's invitation conditional on ending the shutdown. But let's not pretend we can't keep him safe.

Doug Mataconis is currently editing a post discussing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s call for President Donald Trump to postpone or simply deliver in writing the State of the Union Address scheduled for 29 January. We largely agree on the merits of these speeches, delivered as they are to joint sessions of Congress and with enormous pomp and ceremony.

It is fully within the prerogative of the Speaker to decline to extend an invitation to the President to give the speech in the Halls of Congress. And I’m quite sympathetic to her desire not to fete him with an elaborate celebration while hundreds of thousands of civil servants wonder when they’ll be paid because of his childish tantrum over a stupid wall that he could have demanded while his own party controlled both Houses of Congress.

What’s silly, however, is her pretext that this is somehow about security.

In September 2018, Secretary Nielsen designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs), recognizing the need for “the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear” to ensure the security of these events. The extraordinary demands presented by NSSEs require weeks of detailed planning with dozens of agencies working together to prepare for the safety of all participants.

The U.S. Secret Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security for National Special Security Events by Public Law 106-544, December 19, 2000. However, both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now – with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs.

Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th.

While there is reason to question the motivation level of security personnel worried about how they can pay their bills and feed their families, Secret Service agents and others tasked with planning and executing presidential security details are exempt from the furlough. Moreover, to the extent DHS feels it can’t do its job, that’s an executive, not a legislative determination.

We’ve had State of the Union and other presidential addresses to Congress during World Wars, in the days after the 9-11 attacks, and during other national crises far more dangerous than this one. Hell, Bill Clinton gave one of these days after being impeached by the House of Representatives and while under trial in the Senate.

Again, I’m fully on board with Pelosi simply telling Trump that he’s not welcome in the Capitol building until he stops holding 800,000 public employees hostage over the Quixotic wall. But be transparent about that rather than pretending we can’t keep the President safe.

FILED UNDER: Congress, National Security, Presidency, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. Teve says:

    Pelosi is a baller. She’s denying Trump the big televised event where he’d appear to lord over everyone, and look like a leader, and also berate the Democrats about a wall. And putting it on him at the same time. there’s a new column in the Atlantic about how Pelosi beat George w bush on privatizing social security, and she’s going to beat Trump on the wall.

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  2. Teve says:

    Putting additional blame on scumbag Nielsen is just a cherry on top.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    In September 2018, Secretary Nielsen designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs), recognizing the need for “the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear” to ensure the security of these events. The extraordinary demands presented by NSSEs require weeks of detailed planning with dozens of agencies working together to prepare for the safety of all participants.

    The U.S. Secret Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security for National Special Security Events by Public Law 106-544, December 19, 2000. However, both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now — with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs.

    Haven’t been in DC for awhile but I rmember being struck by how many cops there were, and how many varieties. DC cops, Capitol cops, Military cops, Park cops, transit cops, and it semeed like another dozen flavors of uniformed cops. Most of whom probably have some role in security, crowd control, or traffic control, plus a whole lot of out of sight people from Capitol janitors to whoever handles snow removal contractors. She didn’t say say they weren’t motivated, just that they can’t properly carry out the necessary planning and coordination, as required by Secretary Nielsen, in the time left. Given how bureaucratic all this is, she’s probably right.

    In any case, it’s sure better tactics to say it’s Trump’s own fault he can’t have the air time he wants. I’m not seeing why you have a problem with Pelosi playing a little hard ball here.

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  4. HelloWorld! says:

    “What’s silly, however, is her pretext that this is somehow about security.” – I disagree. Living on Capital Hill, I can tell you that the Capital Police of reduced their shifts. We also know that the Secret Service is not getting paid. There are a host of other dependencies to insure safety at this very public event. It is reasonable to link her request to postpone to security.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    James, I suspect you are completely misreading this, both for the reasons outlined above by gVOR08, but also because you assume there is some level of snark here by Pelosi. Pelosi doesn’t do snark very often, and when she does there is a strategic reason.

    By all accounts Nielsen has been working overtime to tell Trump what he wants to hear in an effort to keep her job. As such, she has been one of the biggest proponents of Trump’s moronic wall. But by taking a toy away from Trump and specifically calling out Nielsen in presenting her reasons, Pelosi is driving a wedge. Does she think this is going to have a huge impact? Of course not. But she is the type of person that will move an inch closer to her goal whenever the opportunity presents.

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  6. Kathy says:

    I assume the security pretext is the de rigueur accouterment that allows Pelosi to say he’s not disinviting El Cheeto. You know, a fig leaf.

    Of course it fools no one. And it can backfire if the Secret Service, or more likely the DHS secretary, claims the event can be carried out “safely.”

  7. JKB says:

    The only reason this show was started was for the advent of radio, then television, i.e., broadcast media. Television and radio are over.

    Trump should mark the change with a live-stream (video and also audio-only) over the internet (with feeds to the news orgs and direct to the Capitol). Inaugurate the age of the Presidential Podcast.

    Cut out the journalists who really don’t need to report on what people see and hear directly even as they scramble to do so.

    James, I know you guys don’t like The Federalist, but you might find their Monday radio hour podcast with WI Congressman Sean Duffy interesting. They briefly discuss the recent reality tv/instagram/youtube format ventures of AOC, Warren, Beto, and now Gillibrand. Duffy has some insight having been a MTV reality tv star in the 90s and he and his wife being likely the first reality tv couple (they met on one of the MTV reality show crossovers). Not to mention the flip of his district from historically Dem to massively Trump in 2016.

  8. HankP says:

    I’m surprised that there’s anyone at this point who takes the word of an administration known for bullshitting and outright lying more than any previous administration over Pelosi. I’m not an expert on government or security, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that departments who have not been funded for over a month (by the time SOTU rolls around) will be able to perform their duties at anything near normal capacity.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But be transparent about that rather than pretending we can’t keep the President safe.

    Yeah, who cares about those 100 Senators and 435 Congressmen and women, their staffs and news media people, etc etc etc.

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  10. Teve says:

    I’m not an expert on government or security, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that departments who have not been funded for over a month (by the time SOTU rolls around) will be able to perform their duties at anything near normal capacity.

    that doesn’t make any sense. Avoid triple-negatives.

  11. mattbernius says:

    @JKB:

    Not to mention the flip of his district from historically Dem to massively Trump in 2016.

    I was really interested in learning more about this. As usual the facts are a little different than you’re representation:

    Couple points, first, in the last century, the 7th district only had a single Democrat hold that seat. Though he did for quite a while. Further, while the District broke for Gore (barely), Kerry (barely), and Obama (during it’s first election), it also voted for Romney in 2012.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin%27s_7th_congressional_district

    So portraying that flip as some magical transformation might be gilding the lilly a bit.

  12. Jen says:

    I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to point out that stressed personnel might not perform at the top of their game.

    We’ve already seen coverage of a passenger who was able to carry a firearm onto an international flight (Atlanta airport, he reported it himself when he landed in Japan). Stressed, tired people make mistakes.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: But you’re essentially acknowledging my point: The security issue is a pretext for a political move. I’m fine with the latter; just not the former.

    @OzarkHillbilly: Keeping the President safe in this instance means keeping the Capitol and those inside safe.

    @Jen: Sure. But TSA makes mistakes all the time. People get through security checkpoints with contraband all the time. And, frankly, they’re not exactly the top of the security food chain.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: I wouldn’t be so sure the security issue is just a political smokescreen. I’ve seen comments from two people with experience in planning these multi-branch events who a) take great offense at any suggestion that the Secret Service can’t keep the President safe, but b) concede that there are many other parts of the government who are involved in the extensive planning, coordination and on-site security for the events and that is no doubt suffering because of the furloughs.

  15. Jen says:

    I’m wondering about all of these people, such as those at the IRS, who are being called back to work but are not getting paid. The morale must be just awful, and this is an incredibly stressful time of year for tax preparers and those at the IRS. I just paid my quarterly estimated taxes, and usually I don’t really care if I’m over by a bit, because it comes back fairly quickly in a refund. This year I erred on the conservative side–I’d rather pay a bit than get annoyed or frustrated by waiting for a delayed return. I am curious and will be watching how long it takes to cash that check.

    Long way of saying: forced to work without pay is no way to run a government, and at some point the strain is going to manifest itself in some way. I’d really rather it not be in the area of security.