Nikki Haley’s request for Secret Service protection raises eligibility questions: ANALYSIS


Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley this week made the request that many candidates hope to get approved for — protection by the Secret Service.

Although the former South Carolina governor’s campaign has not articulated specifically why she made the request, it comes after her campaign reported that two “swatting” attempts were made against her home in South Carolina as well as “multiple issues” regarding her safety that Haley cited to the Wall Street Journal after a campaign event in South Carolina.

Swatting is when a call for police services is made, with the caller falsely reporting a dangerous emergency intended to elicit a robust police response.

Haley is the second candidate this election season to request Secret Service protection. Last year, independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made three requests for Secret Service protection, all of which were declined due to his campaign’s inability to meet the thresholds needed to be offered protection. Kennedy implied that the denial of protection was due in part to politics.

ABC News previously reached out to the Department of Homeland Security about why Kennedy was denied protection and the agency declined to comment.

Although U.S. law has long given authority to the Secret Service to provide a presidential candidate protection, the guidance for that process was formalized by the Department of Homeland Security, most recently updated in 2017.

PHOTO: A Secret Service Agent looks on as U.S. President Joe Biden takes off in Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 18, 2024, in Washington.

A Secret Service Agent looks on as U.S. President Joe Biden takes off in Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 18, 2024, in Washington.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

According to that guidance, the factors considered include: the candidate filed for the presidential or vice presidential campaign, hit certain polling averages and fundraising numbers, is recognized as a major candidate in the race or is within 120 days of the election. Additionally, each candidate vying for protection must undergo “a threat assessment conducted by the Secret Service of general or specific threats directed towards the candidate.”

Once that information is established, the Homeland Security secretary and a Congressional Advisory Committee, which includes the Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader, and one additional member selected by the others (typically a Secret Service representative), decide whether a candidate should be offered Secret Service protection.

If the committee decides to offer a candidate protection, the Secret Service has campaign details on standby and ready to deploy for the candidate’s protection. DHS and the Secret Service have yet to comment on the request.

Haley, a former governor and United Nations ambassador, is likely familiar with the protection required for a top role in government. The South Carolina State Police provided her protection when she was governor and as U.N. ambassador, the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service kept her safe.

As most candidates do, during the initial phase of a campaign, Haley has employed and paid for private security to handle her protection at home and on the campaign trail. The Secret Service protection would include her family and homes as well.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign rally at the Indigo Hall and Events venue on Feb. 5, 2024, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Republican presidential candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign rally at the Indigo Hall and Events venue on Feb. 5, 2024, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Some candidates, such as the late former Arizona Sen. John McCain, have tried to hold off on Secret Service protection due to the perceived distance some believe it places between a candidate and the voters. Although McCain was deemed eligible for Secret Service protection during his two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008, he rejected and resisted the protection until late in the races.

While candidates can reject or hold off on Secret Service protection, others do not and embrace it at the first available opportunity. At the time former President Trump was offered protection, Dr. Ben Carson, a distant candidate whose polling only peaked once at 20%, was also offered protection and accepted the offer.

The one issue that can transcend those thresholds are threats. In May 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama was approved for Secret Service protection based upon the threats surrounding him, which was the first time in history a candidate received Secret Service protection almost two years prior to the presidential election.

The threat assessment by the Secret Service takes into account “threats” defined as “explicit threats of bodily harm to the candidate or indications of inappropriate behavior towards the candidate suggesting potential bodily harm.”

Those threats can be physical, verbal, in handwriting or via on social media and the internet. The Secret Service tracks and investigates threats for its protectees and also will do its due diligence with presidential candidates who may be offered protection.

PHOTO: Security staff stand on the stage as Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a pre-Super Tuesday rally at a Hollywood American Legion Post in Los Angeles, Feb. 7, 2024.

Security staff stand on the stage as Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a pre-Super Tuesday rally at a Hollywood American Legion Post in Los Angeles, Feb. 7, 2024.

Aude Guerrucci/Reuters

Part of that assessment will also look at the climate around the candidate, as it did for former President Obama, who as a Black American candidate, generated an increased volume of threats.

Over the last few years, the climate for elected officials has seen an increase in threats. In 2021, that threat activity peaked with more than 9,600 direct threats and “concerning statements” leveled against members of Congress, according to the U.S. Capitol Police. Another 4,500 threats that year were directed at federal judges who are protected by the U.S. Marshals Service, the agency reported.

PHOTO: A U.S. Secret Service Agent stands guard as parishioners participate in a song, as U.S. President Joe Biden attends church service at Saint John Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina, Jan. 28, 2024.

A U.S. Secret Service Agent stands guard as parishioners participate in a song, as U.S. President Joe Biden attends church service at Saint John Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina, Jan. 28, 2024.

Tom Brenner/Reuters

As has occurred in past campaigns, political rhetoric and the environment can also add to the climate around a candidate. Former President Obama’s campaign is one of the most recent where climate was a clear issue. On the current campaign trail, former President Trump has referred to his GOP challenger by a mangled version of her birth name (Nimarata), calling her “Nimbra.” He has also shared false claims that she is not eligible to run for president because her parents were not U.S. citizens when she was born. In response to accusations that the statements were racist, the Trump campaign claims the comments do not have racist undertones and are political in nature. Haley herself has directed barbs at Trump saying “chaos follows him” in an interview with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.

Political campaigns are often chaotic, something the Secret Service is familiar with. That political environment, threats and conspiracy theories surrounding the campaign and candidate will all be considered when the Secret Service conducts its threat assessment of Haley and her campaign.

Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served during two presidential transitions. He was also a police officer and served in the U.S. Coast Guard.



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