Jonathan Wackrow: Trump's lawyer implied Secret Service bore some responsibility
Job does not include guarding against son causing potential reputational damage
Editor’s Note: Jonathan Wackrow is a CNN law enforcement analyst and former agent with the US Secret Service, serving in the Presidential Protection division. He is an executive director at RANE, a risk mitigation company. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Recently President Donald Trump’s personal attorney suggested that the United States Secret Service may bear some responsibility for allowing Donald Trump Jr. to meet with a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign. This shows a misunderstanding of the scope – and limitations – of the Secret Service’s responsibilities over presidential candidates.
Let’s set this straight: While the Secret Service provides the highest level of protection to candidates, these efforts focus primarily on mitigating physical threats, not politically vetting a protectee’s meetings – or the meetings of a protectee’s son. At no time during a campaign does the Secret Service’s mandate require the agency to appraise candidates’ personal engagements, or screen against US intelligence databases to identify potential foreign agents or “nefarious” actors.
But during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week”, President Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, seemed to imply that very thing, telling correspondent Jonathan Karl, “Well, I wonder why the Secret Service, if this was nefarious, why the Secret Service allowed these people in.” He continued: “The President had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me.”
The normally tight-lipped agency appeared to bristle at the implication, issuing a statement to CNN that “Donald Trump Jr. was not a protectee of the USSS (US Secret Service) in June 2016. Thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time.”
The Secret Service acted quickly to correct Sekelow’s narrative, and here is why:
To begin, although his father was a major presidential candidate and assigned Secret Service protection – to include securing Trump Tower – Donald Trump, Jr., was not directly the subject of Secret Service protection at the time.
Congress authorizes the Secret Service to protect major presidential candidates, who are identified for protection by the Secretary of Homeland Security and a congressional advisory committee. Donald Trump was given a Secret Service security detail in November, 2015.
To provide the highest level of protection to presidential candidates – and, broadly, secure the American political process – hundreds of special agents work in a coordinated effort across the country to, for example, provide constant vigilance over a candidate’s home, regardless of the location or locations. They collaborate with other law enforcement agencies to identify and mitigate potential threats in travel and transportation logistics.
In short, through a systematic protective strategy, combined with precise execution of security protocols by its agents, the service keeps the candidates safe.
But historically, the Secret Service has had little authority over the security of candidates’ campaign headquarters, focusing instead on the safety of their personal residences. At the time of the now-infamous meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Secret Service possessed operational control of security at Trump Tower in its capacity as the candidate’s personal residence.
The proximity of Trump’s residence, which required service protection, to the campaign headquarters (it is in the same building) rendered Secret Service presence incidental, as opposed to mandatory, to the meeting in question. Again, historically, political campaign headquarters do not receive Secret Service oversight.
Furthermore, the Secret Service’s mandate does not cover invitation or exclusion of candidates’ guests for reasons outside of physical security threats. Thus, the Secret Service screened all visitors for physical threats, but could not bar entry into the building for reasons beyond concerns arising from a security screening. It does not screen for threats to a candidate’s reputation, or political risks.
For example, the Secret Service uses magnetometers to screen for weapons, X-ray machines to screens bags and packages, and K-9 dogs to search and screen for explosives – again, focusing fundamentally on physical threats. Consequently, intercepting a meeting with Veselnitskaya – or any other attendee – on the grounds of political or reputational liabilities it would pose to the Trump candidacy or potential presidency would have fallen beyond the Secret Service’s responsibility.
In a volatile political environment where a specific, and faulty, narrative may be offered as fact, it is crucial that Americans understand what is true and what is not. In this instance, they must understand the fundamental role and responsibilities of the Secret Service.
To misrepresent the Secret Service’s charge of providing physical security as somehow including responsibility for researching the background of attendees of a campaign meeting – or screening of the kind the intelligence community would provide – creates confusion.
It is also a distraction to the women and men of the Secret Service, who put their lives on the line each day to protect the president and safeguard the democratic process.