Biden's Late Secret Service Request Raises Protection IssuesMarch 13, 2020
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign formally requested Secret Service protection Thursday. The filing comes following a protester’s charge at the candidate during a recent rally and other campaign appearances at which security was noticeably lax.
This is the second formal petition for taxpayer-funded security Biden has made during the Trump administration. The first came in 2017 when his requisite six-month protective detail after leaving the White House expired. (Former vice presidents are given such protection after a new president is elected and they leave office.) That request was denied, two sources in the Secret Service community of current and former agents and officers told RealClearPolitics.
Though it’s unclear why the agency rejected Biden’s 2017 request, its manpower and budget have been notoriously stretched in recent years. The demands on agents and Uniformed Division officers to protect President Trump’s large family, cover frequent travel and two residences have compounded a decade-long trend of recruitment and retention problems.
Still, Biden was in a unique security position in 2017. He had very publicly mulled jumping into the race in 2016 and was thought to be considering a 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination just months into the Trump administration, even though his official decision to run wouldn’t come until two years later.
After serving as vice president (and running for president in 1988 and 2008), Biden knew what he was getting into when it comes to the logistical limitations and inconvenience of 24/7 Secret Service details. But the protection also provides travel convenience and the cachet of a motorcade ensemble dedicated to ferrying the former second family around with the level of security only taxpayer dollars can buy.
There’s a formal process for weighing the needs of former first and second families, involving a request to the Department of Homeland Security secretary, which then assesses threats versus costs.
This time around, Biden’s request for protection is all but a sure thing for approval, say sources familiar with the process, especially with the coronavirus posing a new physical threat to Biden and his only remaining rival for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, as well as President Trump. All three are men in their 70s, part of the demographic most susceptible to the illness. Before precautions radically changed Americans’ greeting habits, each candidate spent arguably more time glad-handing the public nearly every day than anyone else in the country.
“Once we begin protection for the Democratic candidate(s), as a matter of practice, we will keep an ongoing and open dialogue with campaign staff, the host committee, and other stakeholders to ensure public health concerns and information is shared,” a Secret Service spokesperson told RCP.
As the established front-runner who has faced startling episodes of protesters rushing him on stage, there’s little doubt Biden will be granted the full measure of a Secret Service detail for a presidential campaign, which usually includes a small motorcade and a team of agents, as well as canine bomb-sniffers, former agency employees tell RCP.
Biden’s request must be approved by the Candidate Protection Advisory Committee, which consists of the speaker and minority leader of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and an additional member selected by the committee. That groups makes a recommendation “to inform the decision” of the Department of Homeland Security secretary, the Secret Service said last week in a statement.
At that time, the agency noted, no campaign had requested protection. But the world has changed a lot in just one week, with coronavirus canceling political rallies, professional and college sports, and large events of all kinds. In some ways, the virus could help the Secret Service ramp up its protection of the Bidens, along with Sanders family too if they formally ask for it too. For the next couple of weeks, at least, there will be no big public rallies like the kind that just last week were routine for Sanders and Trump and that Biden was looking forward to finally generating.
Earlier this month, before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, photographers captured the alarming images of Jill Biden facing off with a vegan protester who rushed the stage while her husband was delivering a victory speech. The former second lady helped muscle animal rights activists away as they brandished an image of a cow while yelling, “Let dairy die!”
For those of us in the crowd, it was a startling burst of action, all taking place in mere seconds and subsiding quickly but rattling everyone present just the same.
There was meager security presence at the event, which itself seemed a little haphazard, thrown together at the last minute at an obscure outdoor neighborhood recreation park just off of Obama Boulevard and the I-10 freeway in central Los Angeles.
Two police officers and their cars allowed press entrée through a chain-link fenced parking area, but there were no metal detectors for the public or the press nor discernible police or other security once inside. The event wasn’t widely publicized and it attracted a small crowd of 300 to 400 people. Yet, the dearth of security officers was remarkable, especially to many reporters who showed up to cover Biden’s comments capping his stunning Super Tuesday string of victories.
For a candidate who has raged against the gun lobby, blaming it for the nation’s mass shootings, and who has promised to put former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke in charge of gun control issues, the lax security seemed reckless to some on hand for the rally that night.
Just a few days earlier, many of the same reporters showed up to cover a Sanders event at the Los Angeles Convention Center that attracted some 24,000 supporters. With metal detectors creating long, snaking lines, it took nearly half an hour just to get into the main hall on a Sunday night. Once there, a phalanx of LAPD’s finest lined the exits and didn’t flinch when a Black Lives Matter leader on stage repeatedly blasted the police department as the largest jailer in the country.
There’s no word yet whether Sanders will also make a Secret Service request. The campaign did not respond to an RCP question about its intentions this week. The Biden camp was equally reticent to discuss the matter.
The news of Biden’s formal request to the Secret Service only came to light because a congressional source confirmed that a formal filing was made Thursday and that legislative leaders were weighing the matter.
But questions linger: Why wait to ask for Secret Service protection or, in Biden’s case, also skip putting metal detectors in place even at small rallies?
Gary Byrne, a former Secret Service officer, says it doesn’t just come down to a lack of campaign funding, although in the case of Biden forgoing metal detectors, that could have been a reason. Heading into Super Tuesday his campaign was running on fumes -- until money started rolling in after his big comeback set of wins that night.
Besides cash flow problems, there are simple logistics issues that can delay a request. These include having campaign staff tripping over Secret Service personnel and dealing with their intense planning and security demands.
“Campaigns aren’t always in a hurry to get protection because when they do, everything changes,” Byrne said. “Sometimes it’s not as great as it sounds. The Secret Service is very intrusive in everybody’s lives.” Agents and officers need to know campaign plans well in advance in order to size up the security threats and protect against them ahead of time.
Biden, Byrne said, is well-known among agents and officers as being very hard to protect.
“I still have friends who have served on his detail and they just hated it — he’s a pain in the backside. He was reckless, slipping out of the house sometimes without warning. And just kind of cantankerous around the house — not wanting to follow directions,” said Byrne, who wrote a book on the history of the Secret Service, as well as the tell-all “Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience With Hillary, Bill and How They Operate.”
“You can’t say, ‘I’ll get along with the Secret Service as long as they do what I tell them.’ Once the tail starts wagging the dog like that, that’s not Secret Service protection, that’s armed Uber.”
Still, Byrne says the need for protection is obvious after both Biden and Sanders experienced protesters rushing them on stage. In Sanders’ case, his Twitter followers often swarm other critics online, and some of those episodes have included threats of violence, which could gin up the chances of an equally violent response in the public arena.
“Are they in danger? They absolutely are in my opinion. But there’s a whole history of presidential candidates running without protection,” Byrne said.
He recalled that many presidential candidates, such as John McCain, avoided having Secret Service protection as long as they could because it makes their logistics less cumbersome and they can employ private, tight-knit security details they can better control.
With the Democratic primary now down to two candidates and the public threats increasing, push has come to shove on the issue. Biden and Sanders are increasingly risking their lives and those of their families, as well as the security of their supporters in the crowd, if they forgo it any longer.
“I’m frankly surprised they both don’t have it already,” Byrne said.