If there are any checklists or plans, procedures, or guidelines for the Secret Service to follow in the event of an autogolpe—a crisis in which a sitting president refuses to transfer power—a half-dozen former officials privy to the government’s most sensitive contingency plans aren’t aware of them.
None would speak for the record, owing to both the secrecy of the plans and to the sensitivity of the moment: They don’t want to encourage President Donald Trump to cross a line that authorities haven’t conceived of.
The Daily Beast pressed these officials to run through scenarios on the grounds that Trump has made a sport of turning the inconceivable into the how the hell did that just happen?
These officials, who include leaders of Secret Service presidential details, agency heads, and military planners, see two distinct issues.
One is: Will there be a question about who the president really is? The other: What happens if, in a fit of pique, the former president simply will not vacate the seat of American government.
“I’d have a conversation with the chief of staff, and then the family, Ivanka, and the other kids, and say, it’s going to be your job to make sure he’s gone.”
— former senior Secret Service official
The first question is easy to answer. After the certification of the Electoral College on Jan. 6, the White House Military Office will prepare a briefing for President-elect Joe Biden on the contents of the president’s emergency satchel, often known as “the football,” with a secure satellite phone and laminated nuclear-war option guide inside. They will accept, from the National Security Agency, a set of presidential authentication cards, known as biscuits, that will be active the moment Biden is sworn in. Each has two columns of letters and numbers on it, and are used by the Pentagon emergency-action controllers to positively identify the president.
If past is prologue, Biden will receive the procedural briefing on Jan. 19 and a military aide will be assigned to him immediately, hours before the inauguration. (As vice president, he received similar briefings and the process hasn’t changed, according to officials.)
President Trump’s nuclear authentication card won’t work after the swearing-in. So far as the U.S. military is concerned, it doesn’t matter where the president is; billions of dollars have been spent to ensure the commander-in-chief can execute a war plan from anywhere on earth, even if he can’t immediately occupy the White House. There will be no ambiguity, these officials said, even if Trump were to try something extraordinary. The Pentagon’s command and control centers would not accept his orders.
What if Trump won’t go?
What if he sits down at the Resolute Desk and dares someone to physically remove him? What if he occupies a couch in the residence? The harm here is real, beyond how ridiculous the performance would look to the rest of the world: A functional president requires a functioning office.
Former senior government agency heads and Secret Service detail leaders pushed to think through this scenario offered several plausible solutions. “I think I’d have a conversation with the chief of staff, and then the family, Ivanka and the other kids and say, ‘It’s going to be your job to make sure he’s gone,’” a former senior Secret Service official said.
Another possibility: “When the staff leaves on January 19, don’t let them back into the complex the next day. He can’t do anything without his staff.”
An isolated president, in other words, would be more susceptible to just throwing in the towel.
“I really think it would be up the Republican Party if he were to try something like that,” a second former official said. “The Service and the military would just not want to get involved. It’s not our role.” (Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said there is “zero” role for troops to play in the election or its aftermath.)
A movie ending is not in the cards, either, because the Secret Service’s Presidential Protective Division (PPD) immediately transfers its resources to the incoming president on Jan. 20. In other words, there won’t be a “Biden detail” in a shooting war with the PPD because the PPD becomes the Biden detail the moment the president is inaugurated.
And no one should worry about loyalties, either. The Secret Service’s deputy director, Leonza Newsome III, was the head of Biden’s vice-presidential detail during the Obama administration.
But what would happen if Trump simply said no?
“Well, I guess by law he would be a trespasser,” a former Secret Service agent said. “We’d have to escort him out.”