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Who protects whom? Depends on presidential candidate, congressional status

Kamala Harris incident in San Francisco prompts campaign security concerns

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received Secret Service protection when he ran for president in May 2007, more than a year out from the general election. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received Secret Service protection when he ran for president in May 2007, more than a year out from the general election. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

When a protester walked onstage and took the microphone from California Sen. Kamala Harris at an event earlier this month, it raised serious questions about who is in charge of protecting the Democratic presidential candidate and at what point in her campaign — and others’ — the Secret Service should step in. 

Harris remained calm, and security personnel at MoveOn’s Big Ideas Forum in San Francisco leaped onstage as the senator walked away. Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, wrestled the microphone from the protester. But the incident brought with it a flurry of concern about how vulnerable candidates can be on the trail, and who is responsible for protecting them.

When Harris or other lawmakers are on Capitol Hill, they’re protected by the legislative branch’s own police force, the U.S. Capitol Police. But rank-and-file members, even those with ambitions the size of the White House, don’t have personal security from Capitol Police in most cases.

Lawmakers who receive full-time protective details from the Capitol Police include the speaker, majority and minority leaders in both chambers, the whips in both parties, and the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Other members may receive added protection in response to specific threats — Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, has been seen flanked by Capitol Police due to credible threats against him. But otherwise they spend much of their time outside the Capitol complex, including in their home districts or states, without bodyguards. 

Not secret history

Presidential candidates on the campaign trail who have the most success and stay in the race the longest become eligible for protection from the U.S. Secret Service, an agency that started with a mission very different from protecting presidents.

It was established in 1865 to stop counterfeit money, and it now protects U.S. payment and financial systems from cyber crimes. It was part of the Treasury Department until 2003, when it was moved to the Homeland Security Department.

Despite those early roots, the agency is better known today for its role in protecting officials at the pinnacle of American government. In 1894, the Secret Service Division (as it was called back then), began to protect President Grover Cleveland part time, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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CRS notes that three Secret Service Division agents were present when President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, but they reportedly weren’t completely in charge of the protective mission. After that assassination, congressional leadership asked the division to protect the president, and Congress appropriated money for that purpose in the Sundry Civil Expenses Act, enacted in 1906. Seven assaults have occurred since then, with one president killed, John F. Kennedy.

Secret Service protection is now afforded to the president and vice president, along with the president-elect and vice president-elect and their immediate families, according to CRS.

A security detail also protects former presidents, their spouses and their children under 16. (This also applies to former vice presidents.)

Candidates running for president are protected by Secret Service officers if they meet certain thresholds. Typically, those deemed “major” presidential and vice presidential candidates within 120 days of the general election — and their spouses — qualify for protection. Sometimes protection can start earlier if warranted, such as with Sen. Barack Obama, who got his detail in May 2007 — more than a year before he won the 2008 Democratic nomination. The Homeland Security secretary makes that determination after consulting with select leadership in Congress.

A set of criteria helps determine protection for candidates. A candidate should be publicly announced, have a level of prominence indicated by polls, be campaigning and entered in a minimum of 10 state primaries, be seeking a qualified party nomination, have qualified for matching funds of at least $100,000 and have contributions of $10 million.

According to the Secret Service’s website, major candidates for president and vice president, and their spouses, started getting protection after New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was killed campaigning in California in June 1968.

Candidates, or their campaigns, have to submit a request for Secret Service protection through the Department of Homeland Security. Once the protection is authorized, it would be unusual for a candidate to then decline it, a Secret Service spokesperson said.

In 2016, candidates protected by the Secret Service included Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, eventual winner Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

G. Michael Brown, who served as Carson’s political director for his 2016 presidential campaign, said Carson received threats that developed into serious safety concerns by the late summer of 2015.

Brown said the Secret Service protection for Carson began sometime between late October and early November. Members of Carson’s staff — known to the Secret Service officers — were able to get access to the candidate without having to go through Secret Service.

“We would have to provide the schedule in advance,” Brown said of his dealings with the agency, adding that his team would work with Secret Service to lay out locations of events and anticipated attendance.

“We would give them line by line,” Brown said. “Every minute of the day had to be filled in.”

Secret Service personnel work 24/7 to guard the candidates they protect, the Secret Service spokesperson said. Brown said he would see a couple of agents in the parking lot of the hotel they were staying at and brought them water bottles as a gesture of appreciation for their work. 

Convention time

Capitol Police told lawmakers earlier this year that the department plans to  have a large footprint for the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions next year, even with many other law enforcement and security agencies also involved.

The Secret Service leads the way in securing the official event sites, because the conventions are designated as national special security events. But lawmakers will be all across Milwaukee and Charlotte, North Carolina, at fundraisers, dinners and other events outside the secured perimeter.

Local law enforcement is typically focused on demonstrations and protests, and the larger metro area. That means Capitol Police focuses specifically on keeping lawmakers safe.

Close to half of Congress will descend on each convention city to support their party’s nominee, go to events and fundraise alongside their party faithful. With so many lawmakers in one area, Capitol Police deploys personnel and equipment, bringing the assets usually available on the Capitol campus to the conventions. Those include teams and technology to detect and mitigate suspicious packages, SWAT teams and K-9 units, which sweep areas where members of Congress may gather outside the perimeter.

Capitol Police requested a funding boost for fiscal 2020, in part to cover overtime needs for the conventions, travel and protective services for Charlotte and Milwaukee.

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