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How the Secret Service decides which presidential candidates to protect

Nineteen Democrats are running for president. Not all of them will get protection.

by Liz Landers
Apr 24 2019, 1:44pm

Before California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell had even declared his candidacy, the gun control proponent got a taste of the kinds of threats national political figures receive.

“Eric Swalwell, here’s a little ditty for ya pop pop po-bop pop pop thirty round clip you’re all gonna drop,” said the recording on his congressional office voicemail, which Swalwell recently shared on Twitter. “We’re going to war, and you’re going to be the first mother fucking casualty. Fuck you!"

The first 2020 primary is still nine months away, but several presidential candidates have already received violent threats. Campaigns tend to keep those out of the spotlight, but the sheer number of contenders — and the intensity of the current political climate — make discretion harder this cycle. Police arrested a man Friday for leaving profanity-laced voicemails, complete with racial slurs and death threats, for Democratic senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker as well as Swalwell. And a group of anti-LGBTQ protesters, dressed as Jesus and the devil, got within feet of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay president, at a rally in Iowa last week.

Presidential candidates have their own security details — if they can afford it. Donald Trump’s private security man Keith Schiller became one of the more famous examples on the 2016 trail. And Buttigieg, after his encounter at the rally, told a reporter that he has “a lot of confidence in the security arrangements that we have.” But candidates aren’t required to have Secret Service protection, although some are considering it. A top Bernie Sanders aide told VICE News that Secret Service protection is being discussed, but the campaign hasn't formally asked yet.

Sens. Kamala Harris’ and Cory Booker’s campaigns declined to comment on the issue of candidate safety.

“We don’t really know who will receive protection based on the markers laid out in the law,” said Don Mihalek, a former Secret Service agent who retired from the agency in January after more than 20 years. “At the end of the day, it could be just one candidate.”

Secret Service protection for presidential candidates was borne from a tragedy in 1968: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy after a campaign event during the Democratic primaries. President Lyndon B. Johnson immediately directed the Secret Service to provide protection to presidential candidates, and within 24 hours of Kennedy’s death, the agency had become responsible for five candidates. By the end of the 1968 campaign, the agency had protected 12 candidates.

But unlike decades ago, serious threats of violence, such as those experienced by freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, are often out in the open now. In her short tenure, Omar has become one of the most vocal critics of the U.S.’ relationship with Israel — and thus a target of ire, sometimes from the president’s Twitter feed. A man was arrested in New York at the beginning of April after threatening to shoot the congresswoman in a phone call to one of her staffers.

“The news media cycle is repetitive and constant. The Internet and the cyber world has allowed individuals to amplify their concerns, amplify their protest, amplify their threats,” Mihalek said. “So the Secret Service now has the added responsibility of trying to identify and track those threats that come through the cyber world that didn't exist not too long ago.”

WHO GETS PROTECTED?

This year, the Secret Service is already working to make sure it’s better prepared than before the 2016 election, when pay caps affected morale and turnover was high. That year, 17 Republicans ended up running.

But the Secret Service has fixed those problems now, spokeswoman Cathy Milhoan told VICE News. The agency has already met its hiring goals for the year specifically because of the looming 2020 election, according to her.

The Secret Service has also brought agents from field offices around the country to its Maryland academy for a “refresher” course on campaign-protection procedures and to meet other agents on the detail, according to Milhoan. She added the event is normal operating procedure ahead of presidential campaign cycles.

While Secret Service won’t say when it provides protection to presidential campaigns, the agency does follow some general guidelines. The candidate must:

  • be publicly announced
  • be actively campaigning on a national basis
  • have a general or specific threat assessment conducted by the United States Secret Service
  • be polling at least 15 percent for 30 consecutive days during and within a major party primary
  • be the formal or de facto nominee of a major party
  • be an independent or third party candidate polling at at least 20 percent for 30 consecutive days

As a final step, the candidate must make an official request to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who consults with a congressional advisory committee (mostly leadership from both parties) and then determines whether to grant or decline protection.

Even with the protocols in place, the Secret Service sometimes has to make judgement calls. In 2007, for example, the agency started protecting then-candidate Barack Obama soon after he hit the campaign trail, even though, at the time, he wasn’t meeting the polling thresholds that would have normally triggered Secret Service protection.

“It was, of course, historic,” Mihalek said. “So shortly thereafter, he started to receive a heightened amount of threats against his life.”

One added challenge for this campaign season, as one Secret Service agent described to VICE News, is the president’s large family — five children and even more grandchildren — who receive protection. The agent added that “burnout” is high because Trump travels frequently, including those trips to Mar-a-Lago.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s intent to enter the race could also be a complicating factor, another former Secret Service agent told VICE News. Even though Biden no longer has Secret Service protection, “the threats facing a Vice President do not just go away once they leave office,” the former agent said.

Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. speaks during a campaign stop at the Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City, Iowa, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)