If I had been working on Trump’s security detail on January 6, I would have made the same decision as Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Robert Engel to not go to the Capitol based on the known escalating threats. I worked in the Secret Service for 14 years and worked at the White House from 2009 to 2014. My job as a Special Agent was to coordinate the necessary security measures to protect President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and while they traveled domestically and internationally; identifying threats and putting security control measures in place.
I found Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony at the January 6 committee shocking, to say the least. To me, it seems unlikely that the President lunged toward the steering wheel or tried to choke the Agent. But did the President yell and scream at this decision? He probably did. It sounds like he was very upset.
Anyone who heard the testimony should feel that, if true, the behavior of the President was shocking as it is so anomalous to what we expect from someone that holds the highest office in the United States. However, you have to remain objective to the testimony and understand that this was one person’s account of events. I found the testimony to be very credible, but if I was an investigator, I would rely on additional testimony to further verify statements and observations made.
As angry as Trump is said to have been at not being allowed to go to the Capitol, I’m sure he respects the Secret Service because he still has Secret Service protection. He sees first-hand what they’re willing to do to protect him and his family. While you might have moments of frustration between the protector and the protectee, there’s always that mutual respect.
In my career I’ve seen elected officials who were not happy with a decision that Secret Service agents made, such as not being allowed to walk in a crowd that’s not secure. They felt those decisions were too restrictive. Presidents don’t like to be told “no.”
I’ve seen that elevated frustration, back and forth, but I’ve never seen the Secret Service lose that discussion.
Trump allegedly called for the agents to take down the metal-detecting magnetometers so there would be more people in the crowd for his speech on January 6. The Secret Service never opened up the magnetometers, they never let people in with weapons. This is why we don’t let the President dictate protection—it’s not a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” They have to protect not only the President but everyone who’s at that event.
The Secret Service isn’t there to please the protectee. The job of an agent is to ensure that that individual is safe. So while it’s beneficial to be able to have a good rapport, it’s not essential.
That being said, I’ve always seen the relationship between agents and permanent protectees to be very cordial. Secret Service protection is the most intrusive thing in the world. We’re always there and we’re always within earshot. We have a front-row seat to the best and worst aspects of somebody’s life and we get to be a part of their life. Because of that you do develop rapport, which develops into a sense of trust, mutual respect and confidence.
The President and First Lady, they’ll come out in the morning and say, “Hey, good morning, how are you doing? How’s your day? The weather’s nice.” Some sort of small talk. You try to limit the small talk back because you never want to make anything about you. Your job is to protect them, not to be their best friend.
Protection should be apolitical, it should not be influenced by anything. For you to do your job well, you have to be neutral. There have been claims that some of the Secret Service agents posted on their social media that they supported the insurrection of January 6. That does surprise me. If it’s true, it’s disappointing—but it will be an outlier. I don’t believe it’s evidence of a systemic issue in the Secret Service.
I was at home on January 6 and I was appalled by what I was watching on television. I watched for five hours straight. I have a lot of friends who are still agents, who were there on the day. For them, it’s still difficult to process. They’re still talking about it, thinking about what went wrong. One thing about the Secret Service is they’re never complacent—so any time there’s a critical incident, they always look at how they responded and how they can do better in future.
When you’re assigned to the President of the United States, there are crisis situations. Through my time on the detail, there were multiple security issue incidents: unattended packages, people coming over the fence line, in-bound aircraft or alarms that would go off that may indicate some sort of intrusion. You have to react extremely quickly, determine the nature of the threat and move the protectee to an area of safety within the complex or, should it be necessary, fully evacuate. There are emergency protocols for every type of incident.
You can never be complacent; even on a quiet day, you have to have an elevated sense of situational awareness at all times.
The women and men in the Secret Service make sacrifices every single day that no-one knows about; missed engagements, family events, birthday parties. Agents put everything on hold, their entire life is focused on protecting the president. Everything else comes second.
It affected my life. I had small children and I had never had a Christmas holiday at home with them. I was traveling constantly during their formative years. I missed all of their little league games and soccer games because I was working. It’s hard on everybody around you and my wife had to carry a much more significant burden than she probably ever anticipated.
Agents make the sacrifices not for themselves, but because they believe in something greater. They believe that what they are doing has meaning; it’s protecting democracy, it’s protecting freedom.
I left the Secret Service in 2014 for a job in the private sector. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss working with my colleagues. I miss the camaraderie, the complexity of the work and the pressure. There are no small mistakes; the consequences to a mistake are so significant that they can change history.
I’m proud of the work that I did and of the work that agents do every day and I’m humbled to have been a part of that organization.
Jonathan Wackrow worked in the U.S. Secret Service for 14 years. He is now the chief operating officer, Risk Advisory at Teneo.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Katie Russell.