National View: Break up the Secret Service, jail all responsible for Jan. 6 cover-up
From the column: "The Secret Service, we are now learning, is another pressure point that Trump worked over the course of his administration."
Sometimes the irony of America in the 2020s is just too much. Consider the case of James Murray, the current head of the U.S. Secret Service and a 27-year veteran of the force best known for protecting presidents and their families. Last month, Murray abruptly announced he's leaving to become the security chief for the parent company of Snapchat, the social-media platform that's famous for messages that rapidly disappear.
Let me rephrase this: Murray is leaving for a job at ANOTHER outfit where communications become untraceable not long after they're sent. That's because just days after Murray announced his looming departure, it was revealed that nearly all of the Secret Service's text messages from the critical days of Jan. 5-6, 2021 — the pro-President Donald Trump insurrection on Capitol Hill — have been permanently deleted. This despite warnings from investigators to preserve all communications.
Look, I know it's now past the point of cliche to keep comparing the momentum-gaining Jan. 6 investigation in the House to the 1972-’74 Watergate scandal that started 50 long years ago. But as a teen Watergate geek watching today's crisis just as intensely, there is a highly Nixonian feel to the bombshell disclosure of what looks to all the world — despite the agency's protestations — like a massive cover-up.
Both scandals started with felonies in plain sight — a campaign bugging operation, an attempted coup — but also provided a key to opening up the much deeper rot infesting the American government.
Without even knowing the content of the text messages that were destroyed, blamed on a technology-transfer snafu — under pressure from the House investigators, the agency has found a grand total of one communication from those two days — I'm here to tell you that the Secret Service scandal matters. A lot.
I feel the crux of the Jan. 6 committee hearings — that the 45th president knowingly promoted a Big Lie in an effort to undo the results of a democratic election, encouraged supporters that he knew were armed to march on the Capitol, and did nothing to try to quell the inevitable violence — seemed pretty clear by 6 p.m. on the day of the insurrection. That said, this summer's hearings have accomplished a lot. They've teed up a criminal case against Trump and his inner circle for the Justice Department. But the sessions have also revealed the extent that Team Trump had worked to erode the core foundations of a working democracy, and almost collapsed it.
In the final days of his presidency — and especially in those two critical months between the TV networks declaring the election for Joe Biden and the insurrection — Trump did what so many dictators or wannabe dictators have done: filled key positions with people whose loyalty was not to the United States and the tenets of American democracy, but to Trump, period.
Fortunately, the results of the project were a mixed bag. POTUS45 did, for example, place hardcore loyalists in key positions at the Pentagon — where control is critical when one is plotting a coup — but their actions were apparently restrained by career brass like Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and an unprecedented warning from past defense secretaries. A scheme to directly involve the Justice Department in promoting lies about 2020 voter fraud by naming unqualified coup plotter Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general was quashed by the threat of mass resignations. Both episodes have revealed how close the coup came to succeeding.
The Secret Service, we are now learning, is another pressure point that Trump worked over the course of his administration: gaming the system to get pro-Trump agents that he trusted into the White House. To be clear, tension between the Secret Service and presidents and their families isn't a new phenomenon: Some bitter ex-agents would write tell-all books, and it's not surprising that some presidents would play favorites in staffing. But as with so many things, Trump took this to a new and unprecedented level.
Trump's desire for loyalty and familiarity with his protective detail was clear from Day One when he brought in his longtime personal bodyguard, Keith Schiller, to serve as director of Oval Office Operations. Like so many in Trumpworld, Schiller's stay proved short, but the desire for a palace guard of Trump loyalists did not abate.
"According to sources inside the Secret Service, Trump was taking long looks at the agents around him to decide which ones were loyal to him," author Jeffrey Robinson, who worked on a Trump novel project and penned a book on the Secret Service, wrote for the Daily Beast. "And because this is antithetical to the way the Secret Service must operate, he created the very dangerous situation where certain PPD agents were loyal to him, personally — just like bodyguards — while others did their job properly and remained loyal to the office of the presidency, just as Congress intended."
By the end of his presidency, Trump had crashed through the ethical guardrails by bringing a favored Secret Service agent, Tony Ornato, into his White House staff to serve as deputy chief of staff for operations, overseeing Trump's security and other critical matters. Ornato returned to the Secret Service in a senior management post when Biden took office. A crucial witness to the events of Jan 6, Ornato has now retained a lawyer.
The mid-19th-century creators of the Secret Service never intended for the agency to become a palace guard — because palace guards get caught in palace intrigue. Which brings us to the key unanswered questions of Jan. 6.
What was the Secret Service told in advance about the potential for violence in D.C., and specifically about threats to Vice President Mike Pence before he oversaw the certification of Biden's victory? Who was really calling the shots on whether or not it was safe or appropriate for Trump to drive from the rally at the Ellipse to the Capitol, as he unsuccessfully demanded? And most importantly, who ordered the plan for removing Pence from the Capitol, an idea that the then-vice president nixed and which would have aided the coup plot?
These orders were most likely conveyed by text messages, which is why the destruction of this evidence is such a bombshell development. Agents were supposedly given instructions on three separate occasions to preserve these messages ahead of a looming change in technology: once before Jan. 6 and finally in February 2021 when congressional investigators were specifically seeking that day's texts. And yet, most were still deleted, for good. The Secret Service is the government agency tasked with tracking cybercrimes. So ignorance is not a defense.
Entire books have been written about the long history of Secret Service scandals — drinking, sex, dereliction of duty, and whatnot — and I won't rehash them here. I will mention, however, that the worst cover-up in Secret Service history occurred around another dark date in U.S. history: Nov. 22, 1963.
The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig, in her history of the Secret Service, "Zero Fail" (and called to my attention in a newsletter by Esquire's Charlie Pierce), revealed that boxes of key evidence about the agency's role in protecting President John F. Kennedy in the run-up to his assassination in Dallas disappeared right after congressional investigators sought them in the late 1970s. She wrote Congress was probing reports "that Secret Service agents and headquarters had received numerous warnings and early red flags that Kennedy was being targeted by people who wanted to shoot him from a high spot in a building."
This time, what looks like one of the worst high-level cover-ups since Watergate needs to be treated as the crime that it appears to be. Whatever Murray or Ornato or other Secret Service bigwigs claim happened here, the reality is that justice has already been obstructed. Those who are found responsible should face the threat of criminal penalties as severe as those for the crimes — all the way up to seditious conspiracy — that might have been shown by the missing texts.
But I wouldn't stop there. At this point, the failure of the Secret Service goes beyond its ill-conceived name. President Biden and lawmakers should consider a broader purge of the agency. Give it a new name and redraw the lines of authority so that the agency reports to Congress and is less prone to White House manipulation by the likes of a Trump. Then make the current agents reapply for their jobs, to weed out the politically tainted ones.
Our presidents need world-class protection, but the American people don't need a "Secret Service." We need an open, public service — that kind we didn't get around Jan. 6.
Will Bunch is a national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.