The Secret Service’s Day of Reckoning Approaches

An indictment of former President Donald Trump would offer the agency a chance to restore its tarnished reputation.

A Secret Service agent in the foreground, with Donald Trump speaking behind him
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Whether Donald Trump is arrested and booked on Tuesday or not for a case involving a payoff to the porn star Stormy Daniels—something only he has predicted—the potential arrest of a former United States president is not only unprecedented but actually quite technically challenging. How does one arrest a former president in a democracy that has never faced this prospect before? The fate Trump may finally face in a courtroom is not the only reckoning coming around the bend. For the U.S. Secret Service, this is an opportunity for a course correction.

After years in which some agents acted as Trump’s loyal servants, the Secret Service must get back to basics. Although the agency faced considerable challenges before Trump became president, by the end of his presidency, its critics charged that its loyalty to the United States had been subsumed by its loyalty to a man. Trump regularly grifted off the service, charging it exorbitant hotel fees for his own protection on his properties. Trump broke the tradition of separating politics from protection when he appointed the deputy assistant director of the Secret Service, Anthony Ornato, to be his own deputy chief of staff; the service seemed a willing accomplice to Trump’s agenda. The roles played by both Ornato and the service in the January 6 insurrection were, at best, an embarrassing mess and, at worst, a sign that the service was not salvageable.

We were all talking about the Secret Service too much; it had become the subject and was not, as intended, in the background. Whether President Joe Biden has the capacity or inclination to take on an agency that is simultaneously protecting him and his family remains unclear; Biden has appointed a new director, but there haven’t been massive firings or reviews.

Now one of the most unusual moments the agency will ever have encountered presents the Secret Service with the chance to restore its tarnished reputation and return to normal. As a former president, Trump is still a protectee. As a former president, though, he is also no longer in charge. He does not control the environment; he can make noise, but he cannot dictate the terms of his arrest. He may want a perp walk for fundraising purposes, but nobody has to promise him one.

By all accounts of the preparation for a potential arrest, the Secret Service seems to have remembered that its role is to avoid the limelight. Tellingly, the Secret Service is not, in the terminology of site protection, “the coordinating entity.” The agents on Trump’s detail are not taking charge of site protection or securing the courthouse, and not performing advance work for a public appearance. They are leaving that all to local police. If Trump wants to incite a crowd or call for protests, as he has, so be it. That isn’t the service’s problem.

The service just needs to show up with the suspect and let the court conduct its typical process, recording the necessary information. In New York, that involves taking the name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth of the defendant. That the man who entered politics by questioning the birth certificate of Barack Obama will now be reduced to verifying his own identity in court is a delicious bit of irony.

If all goes as it should, Trump’s arrest should be no different from what the service calls an “off the record” event, as if Trump were invited to a wedding and the agents were checking where he was seated. The service seems to know this. Jonathan Wackrow, a former agent in the Presidential Protection Division, believes that it will be very hard for the service to recover if it is perceived as allowing the protectee to dictate the terms of the arrest. “For the Secret Service,” he told me, “they want this to just be another day in the life of the protectee. It is just an administrative movement. That is all. Get him from Point A to Point B and back to Point A.”

When a court demands that a person who is being detained be brought forward so that it can assess the legality of the detention, it issues a writ of habeas corpus—loosely, “produce the body.” That is a clarifying way to think of the service’s role in the days ahead.