Donald Trump’s last-minute Mexico stunt may have made for a good photo op, but it put both himself and the Secret Service agents protecting him in even greater danger than normal, former U.S. Secret Service agents told The Daily Beast.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City also reportedly advised against the visit, which was proposed last Friday and only agreed to by Trump earlier this week.
“It definitely puts lives at risk,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a 14-year Secret Service veteran, who spent his last five years in the service on Obama’s detail. “The stress is unbelievable because you have to have a plan for every contingency… but the time to think of it has been reduced from two weeks to two days.
“These things are always a nightmare. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic… anything that can go wrong does go wrong on a trip with a short timeline,” said Dan Bongino, a retired Secret Service agent who coordinated President Obama’s visits to Prague, Jakarta, and Afghanistan.
The Secret Service is already under immense strain as it works to protect the president and vice president, as usual; both major presidential candidates; and diplomats from all over the world gathering in two weeks for the UN General Assembly.
The agency is also reeling from a series of recent scandals that have raised questions about its professionalism, including top officials drunkenly crashing a car into a White House barrier, a dozen agents bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms during a trip to Colombia with President Obama, and allowing a fence jumper to make it into the East Room of the White House.
For the U.S. Secret Service, this is the “worst period in its history since President Kennedy was assassinated… everyone’s working hard on the campaign trail to keep everybody safe and prevent anyone from being embarrassed, but that’s difficult when you have these last-minute trips,” a 25-year veteran said, asking for anonymity to discuss a matter relating to politics.
Along with the lack of advance planning, Wackrow said Trump may have faced a “potentially hostile” environment, given his many insults aimed at Mexicans, who he’s called “killers” and “rapists.”
“He’s going into a country where he’s completely offended the populace… this could very well turn out to be a contentious visit for him… but that’s a risk that every agent accepts —that’s the job,” said Wackrow.
“His unpredictability poses dangers to himself,” Wackrow said. “That’s what’s unprecedented with the Secret Service, having a protectee that offends such a diverse group of people.”
With a standard foreign trip, the former agents explained, a pre-advance team would visit the destination months in advance to study the area, followed by an advance team that would begin making plans two or three weeks before the visit for what to do if there is a tactical crisis, a medical emergency, or a situation where the protectee needs to be relocated. Motorcades or other methods of transportation must be considered. Local law enforcement needs to be contacted for coordination.
“Is it wise, security-wise? Probably not,” Bongino said of Trump’s last-minute jaunt across the border. “But I’ve been on a thousand trips with the U.S. Secret Service where we told protectees that it wasn’t a good idea… If it was up to us they’d sit in a fishbowl and be safe.”
There is a Secret Service model, he said, for when a natural disaster or funeral compels the president to travel abroad on short notice. But rushing this trip, he noted, wasn’t necessary.
“There’s a process of how we do things, and we need time to go through our many, many checklists,” said the veteran agent. “It’s not a good thing when you have to rush a foreign visit.”
But Ken Donohue, who spent 21 years with the Secret Service, did see an upside to rushing. “In my judgment a last-minute [trip] can provide the best security because potential threats can not formulate a plan of action,” he said. “Besides, the USSS is more than capable of providing more than adequate security for trips of this kind.”
And the agency, at least officially, is taking the task in stride.
“The Secret Service routinely protects candidates when they travel outside the United States during the campaign period,” said spokesperson Nicole Mainor. When there are major catastrophes or emergency events, “we’re prepared when those events take place,” she said.
On the agent level, the view is even more stoic.
“Every day is a strain. Every day is a challenge. But nobody does it better in keeping everybody safe,” said the veteran agent who had asked to be anonymous.