Former Secret Service agent reveals what it takes to secure an inauguration

  • Presidential inaugurations are magnets for potential threats, from nuclear attacks to civil disobedience.
  • Mike White was a Secret Service member for almost three decades, and was in charge of presidential protection for both presidents Obama and Trump.
  • White told Insider what it's like to secure a presidential inauguration as Joe Biden prepares to take office.

Mike White was a member of the Secret Service for almost three decades. He was the Special Agent in Charge of presidential protection under President Obama and stayed on when President Trump took office in 2017.

"Inauguration day is game day," he said. "You practice on offense and you practice on defense so that when game day came, you were well-prepared to win the game."
White was front and center during President Trump's inauguration and said preparation took months.
"On that day, from my recollection, I was more concerned about a threat from the air, a drone or an aircraft," White said. "But I was just as concerned that somebody could throw something from the crowd."

Presidential inaugurations have always been targets. In 2009, President Obama's first inauguration faced threats from the terror group Al Shabaab. Back in 1861, there was even an unsuccessful white supremacist plot to assassinate President Lincoln en route to his first inauguration. In 2005, officers along President Bush's parade route even confiscated apples and bananas from the crowd so nothing could be thrown.

It's the job of the Secret Service to prepare for and prevent any of these potential threats - from nuclear attacks to civil disobedience.

"I think things are extremely heightened because of the events that took place at the Capitol," White said.

For President Trump's 2017 inauguration, there were almost 8,000 National Guard troops stationed around Washington. This year brought in over 25,000. That's more than the number of Guardsmen currently deployed overseas, according to the National Guard Bureau. Inauguration planning typically starts about a year in advance. As a type of "national special security event," or NSSE, presidential inaugurations are coordinated by the Secret Service.

"An NSSE requires that everyone that attends the event is put into a protective bubble," White said. "So the NSSE makes the Secret Service be responsible for every public person, the press, all the staff, everyone that's involved in the event."

It also involves working with private companies like Amtrak and cell service providers to secure the entire District. White says it's not unique to see law enforcement working around the clock in the weeks leading up to the inauguration.

"I know I slept in my office, and I know previous agents in charge of the president's detail did the same," White said. "I'm talking about during the planning process, the weeks up before the inauguration."

Most of the work is done by the time you see them guarding street corners. In typical years, that means rehearsing the inauguration, from the parade to the ball, and anticipating any threats.

"You train and prepare for just about every threat that's imaginable," White said.

The pandemic made that kind of training harder this year. But it has also meant far fewer crowds to worry about.
"In the past, we've had hundreds of thousands of people show up, and they have to be screened," White said. "They have to go through magnetometers, and any items that they have with them have to be searched. Those components won't necessarily be as necessary."

The screening in 2021 also looked at law enforcement itself. Nearly 30 off-duty cops were identified as participants at the Capitol riot. The FBI vetted individual National Guard troops, and just a day before Biden's inauguration, two troops were removed from their inauguration posts because of links to far right militia groups.

"I do think there, there may be issues or incidents, and those don't have to be security issues. It could be the weather," White said. "But I think on the security front, we're in pretty good shape."