US Secret Service protection would follow Donald Trump to the slammer if he ever ended up there, former agents say
- As Trump's legal problems mount, ex-Secret Service agents wonder who would protect him in prison.
- Trump is running for president in 2024, and would likely retain a Secret Service detail if he's in state or federal custody.
- The agents probably wouldn't share a cell with Trump, but they could be nearby.
Former President Donald Trump would almost certainly have Secret Service agents charged with protecting him even if he winds up in prison, former agency officials told Insider.
There's an important reason why these law enforcement veterans are saying this, too.
Trump faces a tsunami of legal problems, with an FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago residence on August 8 providing yet another flashpoint in a summer full of them — most notably, the ongoing investigation of the US House's January 6 select committee.
Trump, who announced a 2024 presidential run on November 15, could be mired in federal, state, and local investigations and lawsuits for years, and he lost his presidential immunity when he left office on January 20, 2021.
Trump's legal troubles have spurred ex-Secret Service agents and former Obama administration officials to wonder how exactly agents would protect a president who's been convicted of a crime and serving prison time.
"If Donald Trump gets sent to prison, what's the role of the Secret Service in that case?" said Douglas Smith, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.
Before Trump's presidency, "I don't think anybody ever contemplated having a president in jail and what impact that would have on the Secret Service," a former Secret Service official told Insider.
The Secret Service has been in the headlines numerous times as it relates to Trump, with records revealing that nearly 900 agents contracted COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. Trump's critics accused him of flouting public health recommendations and putting agents at risk during his final year in office. More recently, the Secret Service itself has come under scrutiny for deleting agents' text messages that the January 6 select committee has requested.
Federal law entitles Trump and all other ex-presidents to Secret Service protections for life — although it didn't always. So unless Congress acts to change that, Trump or any other president who lands in jail would have some degree of security provided by the agency, former federal law enforcement officials and legal experts told Insider.
What exactly that would look like is a topic that's gotten more attention as Trump's legal problems pile up, particularly given revelations about Trump's role ahead of and during the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol that left five people dead.
Trump isn't likely to face jail or prison cell anytime soon — or ever. More than 1 1/2 years after he left the White House, no federal, state, or local charges of any kind are publicly pending against the president, even as pressure on Trump is increasing. And even if Trump were charged with a crime, the chances are high he'd be processed and released on bond while awaiting trial. Only with a conviction would this become a live-wire question, albeit one that the people who have been charged with protecting past presidents say they're actively contemplating now.
"Is an agent going to be with him inside a cell? No," said the former Secret Service official, who guessed that Trump would wind up in a "country club-type place" if he's convicted. But there would likely be at least one agent on the property to protect the president, even if that person isn't "walking on his shoulder out in the yard."
Such a job isn't likely to be a coveted assignment for any Secret Service agent, that person said, unless they're also studying to get their master's degree. "I would think you'd have a lot of time to do some reading."
Secret Service officers could theoretically protect Trump within the confines of a prison, either physically near him or by maintaining a presence within a prison — in an administrative office, for example, said Michele Deitch, an expert on prison oversight at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs.
'He would have a target on his back'
Security experts don't expect Trump would be tossed into the fray with other prisoners.
"He would certainly not be part of the general population," said Ken Gray, a retired FBI special agent who served 24 years in the bureau.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Department of Justice, and the Secret Service, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, would almost certainly need to work together to coordinate Trump's protection, Gray said.
Exactly where a federally convicted president would land would be at the discretion of a judge, with some input from the Bureau of Prisons, another former Secret Service agent told Insider.
The Otisville security camp outside of New York City is an example of where some high-profile convicts ask to serve their time. It made a Forbes list of "America's 10 Cushiest Prisons" in 2009. The famous Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff asked to be sent there, but he was assigned by the Bureau of Prisons to North Carolina instead. Michael Cohen started serving his 3-year prison sentence at Otisville too, but the former Trump lawyer got released to home confinement last spring due to concerns about the coronavirus.
A bit closer to Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, there's a minimum-security federal prison camp in Pensacola, Florida. That prison also made Forbes' list of the cushiest locales.
If Trump went to prison for a state crime, his placement would be determined by the state in which he was convicted, several experts said. New York, where Trump faces investigations into his business practices and taxes, and Georgia, where Trump pressured Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the state's presidential election results, are two states in which Trump faces the most immediate legal peril.
Trump could conceivably serve time in a minimum-security facility and would be kept separate from other prisoners, said the former agent. "You could almost put him in a separate little hut."
But other legal experts expect that authorities would choose to house an imprisoned Trump in a much more secure facility, both for his own protection and the protection of the prison.
Of particular concern would be Trump's "martyr status" among some of his most loyal — and potentially dangerous — supporters who might act on grand notions of attacking a prison and freeing Trump, said Mike Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and a former undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning for the state of Connecticut.
Tons of advance planning would go into Trump's security before he entered any sort of prison, according to law enforcement experts. Keeping an ex-president safe while in jail would be a major concern, and it's not something that security officials have had to plan for before.
"Geez, the fact that we're thinking about him going to jail kind of scares me," said the former Secret Service official. "It's just awful to even think about."
Prisons are, in general, very secure places, but authorities would find it uniquely challenging to keep someone of Trump's stature safe, said Deitch, who's also served as a court-appointed monitor on prison conditions.
"Trump — he would have a target on his back," said Deitch.
Trump would unquestionably be placed in what's known as "protective custody," an extremely secure — and extremely restrictive — situation that "doesn't look a whole lot different from a solitary confinement setting," she added. "It's not a setting you would wish on your worst enemy."
Congress could strip Trump's security
Ex-government officials have landed in prisons in the past, although none have been as high profile as a US president.
President Richard Nixon's critics hoped to see him behind bars following the Watergate scandal, but his successor Gerald Ford issued Nixon a blanket pardon a month after Nixon's resignation in 1974.
Before leaving office, Trump pardoned some of his former associates who were convicted as part of the FBI's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
During the George W. Bush administration, then-Deputy Interior Secretary James Steven Griles was sentenced to prison time for obstructing a US Senate investigation into corruption allegations surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He served in a low-security federal correctional institution in Petersburg, Virginia.
Then-President Bush's 19-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were ticketed for alcohol violations in Texas during Bush's first year in office. Jenna Bush could have faced jail time for trying to use a false ID to purchase alcohol, The Washington Post reported in 2001, but she was instead ordered to get counseling and perform community service.
While former presidents are entitled to Secret Service protection, they can opt to decline it — just as Nixon did after leaving office. Experts think Trump would want to keep the extra level of protection if he's indeed sentenced to any kind of prison time.
Congress could also act to strip protections for former presidents. They did so under the Clinton administration, when a law was passed that would afford ex-presidents 10 years of Secret Service security, rather than lifetime protections. That law was changed back during the Obama administration to give former presidents and their wives lifetime protection.
As for what Trump's legal future holds, experts say it's anyone's guess.
"This," Gray said, "is uncharted territory."
This article was originally published on March 12, 2021, and since updated to reflect new developments.
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