Late Friday night, Ben Carson’s campaign made a call to the Secret Service. As the second-highest polling Republican candidate, and the only African-American candidate of either party, he wanted protection for his life. “That’s under review,” a senior Department of Homeland Security official told me Monday afternoon.
Then, “as of 11:30 this morning,” the official said, “a note from the Trump campaign came into the Secret Service.” Donald Trump, the highest polling Republican candidate, wanted protection for his life, too. “That now is also in the review process,” according to the official.
Despite reports to the contrary, neither candidate has been approved to receive security.
Newsmax reported that “approximately two dozen agents” would be assigned to protect both men, and Fox reported that 260 of the Secret Service’s 3,200 agents had already been assigned to provide 24-hour protection.
Upon hearing about the small militia-sized detail, the DHS official responded, “What?!”
“We would never, ever discuss the amount of agents that go into protecting anyone, ever, period,” the official said. “We don’t talk about it with the President, we don’t talk about with the Secretary. I don’t know where that number is coming from.”
The official added, “this is nanners.”
Under the law, “major” candidates for president and vice president may receive protection at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, a Democrat who was appointed by President Obama in 2013.
To receive the protection, a candidate not already authorized for protection—like former First Lady Hillary Clinton is—must formally request it.
In order to determine who is a major candidate, the Secret Service came up with guidelines in 2008: The candidate must be publicly announced, polling prominently, qualified for matching funds, “entered in at least 10 state primaries,” and have fundraising totals of at least $10 million.
If Johnson determines Carson and Trump to be “major,” he will then “consult” a congressional advisory committee made up of top House and Senate leaders. But the committee doesn’t have any real say in the matter. At the end of the day, it’s up to Johnson to decide if Carson or Trump are deserving of protection.
“It’s typically done as quickly as practicable,” the official said of the process. Whether that was days, weeks, or months, no specification was given.
Once the request is reviewed and approved, the official explained, the agents would be assigned to the candidate, brought to the candidate, and the campaign put through an orientation.
The Secret Service wasn’t always in the business of taking seriously requests to protect real estate magnate reality TV stars and retired neurosurgeons who happen to be polling competitively in presidential primaries. The Secret Service wasn’t always in the protection business at all.
It wasn’t until 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated, that the Secret Service changed its focus from quashing counterfeit U.S. currency productions, which it had done for the Treasury Department since its inception in 1865, to providing security to presidents, with Theodore Roosevelt as the first.
And it took Robert F. Kennedy being assassinated in 1968 for the Secret Service to begin offering protection for presidential and vice presidential candidates.
It’s generally assumed that if a candidate is receiving credible threats on their life, Secret Service protection is a given. Obama was granted security in May 2007, but John McCain didn’t until April 2008. In November 2011, Herman Cain, a primary blip in hindsight, got it.
During a campaign stop in Austin, Texas, on Monday, Carson himself seemed confused by the process by which he could end up receiving protection, or under the false impression that the Secret Service had approached his campaign, rather than the other way around.
“I don’t feel the need for it, quite frankly,” he said, “but the Secret Service thinks I need it. So, you know, it is what it is.”
The DHS official disputed this by noting “there is no statutory requirement for protection at this stage.” The official added that it was only upon “receipt of a request” that protection was even considered.
Newsmax reported that Carson had been on the receiving end of an “off the charts” number of threats, “including death threats and terrorist chatter.” Armstrong Williams, Carson’s top adviser, told me, “The campaign doesn’t respond to inquiries about Dr. Carson’s security concerns.”
Trump’s campaign ignored multiple requests for comment, but a source close to the Trump operation said “they have had threats from Hispanic activists” and they were concerned in particular about reports that El Chapo, the leader of a prominent Mexican drug cartel, wanted to harm Trump. In July, he tweeted at Trump to say, “keep fucking around and I’m gonna make you swallow your bitch words you fucking whitey milkshitter.” In October, El Chapo reportedly offered a $100 million bounty for Trump.
Trump responded by hiring more security. “We have officials all over the place, including right outside hanging out in trees,” he said at the time.
The source told me that Trump, a celebrity since the 1970s, has always had protection. Usually it was in the form of “off-duty cops and former football players.” He brought in four new members of the team after he launched his campaign, “former FBI people,” the source said. “He used to have 2 people, maybe 3 or 4 people, traveling with him, but not 7 or 8 like he has now.”