So, the texts and emails are lost. Those same texts and emails the Secret Service first said didn’t exist. Now they say they did exist, kind of, but don’t any longer.
Except, news flash, they do.
When they eventually show up, which they will, the questions being asked today should be answered. Such as, why is it that the texts and emails dated Jan. 5 and 6 went missing? As any experienced investigative journalist knows, there is no such thing as coincidence.
Then, how come the Secret Service hasn’t been up front about it? That answer we already know. The second pillar of investigative journalism is: Everybody lies.
That someone somewhere destroyed the texts and emails is, almost certainly, a crime. In the simplest of terms, the Federal Records Act (44 U.S.C. 31) and the adjoining Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) require all federal agencies to maintain records that document their activities. They are therefore required by law to store them safely and make them efficiently retrievable. They can only dispose of records according to agency schedules. But to suggest that these texts and emails have been disposed of “according to agency schedules”—when they surround a violent insurrection at the Capitol—is a very tough sell.
Then there is this not-so-small matter: Emails and texts cannot be destroyed. Yes, they can be taken off your phone and they can be moved off your laptop, but the complexity of the technology behind them means they exist somewhere. Perhaps conveniently on other servers. Perhaps, inconveniently, in the hidden nooks and crannies of cyberspace. Which is perhaps why Donald Trump has never used emails or texts on any phones associated with him.
Despite the fact that the Secret Service says they can’t retrieve them, or might simply be unwilling to retrieve them, take comfort in knowing that the National Security Agency (NSA) can, should, and hopefully will. It’s what they do.
Now consider this. Anyone who’s followed the president when he leaves the White House knows that there may be 150, 200, or more agents in front of him, with him, and behind him. They man every stop along the way and fill the motorcade with two dozen cars. And, just like in the movies, every agent has a wire dangling from his/her ear and a microphone on his/her sleeve. Wherever the Secret Service goes with the president, there’s constant radio traffic between those agents and the White House and the Secret Service Command Post, in real time. That's all recorded. So, why would someone use texts or emails to avoid using radio traffic?
The answer will likely be, because whoever sent them, or whoever received them, feared they were too incriminating to be seen by anyone else.
That adds up as a lot to worry about, but there is something even more sinister worthy of our apprehension.
Donald Trump has had security around him for decades. I got to know him well 12 or so years ago, long before birtherism and even longer before he had dreams of the White House, when I was hired to write a celebrity novel for him. It’s called Trump Tower and has my byline, not his. A terrific summer read, by the way, in the spirit of Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins. He eventually decided the book would get in the way of his political ambitions and gave it back to me with his endorsement. But I digress.
In those days, the head of his personal security was an ex-NYPD street cop named Keith Schiller. A colorful guy whom I quite liked, he was Trump’s bodyguard. In January 2017, when everyone moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Schiller went along as the director of Oval Office Operations. A made-up title. Schiller was there because Trump liked having his bodyguard close by. He did not understand, and for that matter didn’t trust, the Secret Service. After all, in his mind, the “bodyguards” on his Presidential Protective Division (PPD) were largely the same “bodyguards” who’d protected Barack Obama. And loyalty has always meant a lot to Trump. Schiller, the bodyguard, was among the most loyal. Who knew about the Secret Service agents who came with the office, just like the furniture?
But a bodyguard in the White House is not what the Secret Service wants or needs. And being bodyguards is not what the Secret Service does.
There’s a huge difference. Schiller’s role before Trump’s presidency was to stand next to Trump and deflect any threats. In essence, he was there to play defense. The Secret Service, however, is mandated by Congress to protect the president (plus the vice president, plus anyone designated by the president) to play offense. The primary job of the Presidential Protective Division is to make absolutely certain that if there is a threat, the president isn’t anywhere near it.
By way of history, the paperwork to create the Secret Service was on Abraham Lincoln’s desk, unsigned, the night he went with his wife to Ford’s Theater to see Our American Cousin. The only protection presidents had at the time were supplied by Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police.
That night, April 14, 1865, an unreliable drunk cop named John Frederick Parker was posted at the door of the president’s box. When the play started, because he couldn’t see it from where he was seated, Parker left his post to join the audience in a gallery seat. Then, at intermission, he walked across the street to a saloon for a few drinks. John Wilkes Booth had no trouble getting into the presidential box because no one was at the door and, anyway, it was unlocked.
Even if Lincoln had signed the paperwork before leaving for the theater, it wouldn’t have changed anything. That’s because Lincoln saw the mission of the federal government’s first and then-only law enforcement agency was to protect the nation’s currency. The country was awash with counterfeit money, and Lincoln wanted a federal agency to deal with it. He placed the Secret Service inside the Department of the Treasury, where it remained until George W. Bush made the horrendous mistake of moving it from its traditional home to the Department of Homeland Security. I say it was a mistake because it added an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that decidedly interferes with its secondary mission to protect the president.
That began in 1901 with the assassination of President McKinley. Concerned that three presidents had been murdered in 36 years—Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley—Congress understood that the Metropolitan Police Department simply wasn’t up to the task. So, it turned to the Secret Service, still the nation’s only federal law enforcement agency.
By definition then, the Secret Service works for Congress, not the president.
Which brings me back to Keith Schiller. When Trump was still a civilian, Schiller was his employee. If Trump said, Take me to such-and-such an address, sneak me in the back door where no one can see me and wait an hour until I come out, that’s what Schiller would have done. He was totally loyal to Trump. That’s what bodyguards do.
That’s not what the Secret Service does. At no time can the president or vice president opt out of Secret Service protection. Which is why, on January 6, when Trump told the agent with him in his car, and his driver—who is also, always, an agent—to take him to the Capitol, it was deemed by the Secret Service to be too dangerous, and they refused. It didn’t matter that Trump bellowed, I am the president, take me there. They were well within their rights—and their congressional mandate—to ignore his direct order and say no.
Within six months of Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office, Keith Schiller retired to Florida. That was seen as a victory for the Secret Service. But Trump wasn’t going to give up that easily. 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. 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.
One agent in particular, Tony Ornato, so impressed Trump that he took him out of PPD and gave him a White House staff position. Ornato has since returned to the Secret Service in a senior management position. And in any previous PPD he would have been, and still should be, summarily fired. Such fealty is not only against the spirit of the mission, it is emblematic of Trump’s contamination of the Secret Service and downright frightening.
Now consider this.
When presidents change, the PPD remains basically the same. Without any doubt, many agents on President Biden’s detail are determined to protect the president, regardless of who he is. But there are still those “bodyguards” loyal to Trump—like Ornato and his cronies—surrounding and protecting a man whom they believe stole the election and doesn’t otherwise deserve to be there.
No matter what the emails and texts eventually reveal, the dangers of that should be obvious.
Jeffrey Robinson is the co-author of Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service, written with his old college chum Joseph Petro.