Ethics Quiz: The Secret Service Defies Orders!

As soon as I saw the headline to Prof. Turley’s latest post on his blog, “Res Ipsa Loquitur” I knew we had an ethics quiz: “Presidential Protection or Abduction: Why Secret Service Wrong for all the Right Reasons on Jan. 6.”

Turley’s article was prompted by one aspect of the Jan. 6 Commission testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson that President Trump ordered his official SUV to take him to the U.S. Capitol to be on hand with his supporters as they rallied (it turned out to be a “mostly peaceful” rally) against what Trump had told them was the stolen 2020 election. According to the witness, that she was told that T his Secret Service security team refused, causing the President to become furious.

Turley’s take, in brief:

…the Secret Service is trained to take immediate action to protect a president. On the other hand, it cannot effectively control the presidency by controlling a president like a modern Praetorian Guard. In the end, if this account is true, the security team was likely wrong in refusing the order of the President to be taken to Capitol Hill….Trump intended to do exactly what he promised and ordered the Secret Service to take him to the Capitol. But Tony Ornato, White House deputy chief of staff for operations, and Bobby Engel, who headed Trump’s security detail, reportedly refused.

…If true, the security team’s motivation certainly was commendable. It probably prevented Jan. 6 from getting much, much worse…what was the authority of the security team to refuse a direct order from a sitting president to go to Congress?

…The Secret Service has always assumed discretion in seizing a president to protect him from immediate harm [but there was no immediate harm threatened]…Trump reportedly decided he wanted to lead the protests to the Capitol and didn’t care about the security uncertainties — and he actually had a right to do so. Presidents can elect to put themselves in harm’s way… The Secret Service has no authority to put a president into effective custody against his will… In Trump’s case, he reportedly said he did not want to go back to the White House but was taken there anyway.

…This act of disobedience may have saved the country from an even greater crisis…

In the end, the security team was correct on the merits but probably wrong on the law. This was not an unlawful order, and a president must be able to control his own travel. In other words, the agents were wrong for all the right reasons.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is:

Did the Secret Service do the right, ethical thing in preventing President Trump from joining his supporters at the Capitol?

I know what my answer is, but I’ll uncharacteristically stay quiet for a while.

But while we’re discussing Professor Turley, in my estimation one of the very few commentators not with a stated conservative bias who has been fair to Trump and properly critical of the Axis that has been devoted to “getting” him since Trump broke their hearts by defeating Hillary Clinton, take a gander at the reader comments to his post.

There are 320 comments—gee, it must be nice to have that size readership—and almost none of them deal with the issue Turley is raising. The majority, it seems, focus on attacking Turley for “repeating Fox News talking points” (If this issue was raised on Fox, it was because Turley raised it) and being a “sell-out” because hasn’t been condemning Trump for being Trump. Most of the rest is bickering about the Committee, which isn’t germane either, though Turley has certainly criticized its kangaroo court behavior (More Fox talking points!) in other recent columns, and the kind of garbage we have seen in any comments section that isn’t moderated (“Let’s go Brandon!”). Then there are the gratuitous and off-topic comments like,

No R who supports Dobbs is fit for power. Any politician who believes that government has the authority to control a woman’s body, future, and happiness does not understand the meaning of individual rights or the purpose of government. Their contorted view of the Constitution is the poisonous cherry on the cake.

My major reactions to this:

  • Bravo to Turley for staying objective and not hesitating to make his informed expert analysis known despite the kind of criticism on his own website, and
  • The professor really should moderate his comments.

20 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Secret Service Defies Orders!

  1. Assuming there’s a shred of truth to the testimony (specifically, that the Secret Service refused to take Trump to the Capitol) they fulfilled their mission, which includes ensuring that anywhere the President goes has been properly controlled for his security. This includes ensuring that the area has been swept and that there are adequate protections for POTUS, in the form of physical barriers and human assets, in place.

    So: if that part (at least) of the story is true, the Secret Service acted ethically. And according to their charge.

    • This is basically my take on the issue.

      If their primary charge is to keep the President safe, that is typically done by securing an area. Taking him to an uncontrolled (and probably uncontrollable) area is an unjustifiable risk of failing that primary goal.

      In addition, considering that it is not the President’s job to provide for his own safety, the assessment of the Secret Service should take priority in those matters, particularly if they don’t have adequate time to prepare. It would have been different if the President had said the day before tat he wanted to be at the rally. In such an instance, the risk could be assessed and managed. It could not be done on the fly in this case, any more than if the President had jumped out of the car and said that he wanted to walk back to the White House and interact with the people along the way. That would have been a lawful order, but the Secret Service cannot do its job under such circumstances.

      -Jut

  2. As a retired military officer following lawful orders is probably more ingrained for me than others. It seems to me that if the President gave a lawful order, the USSS should have followed it. The agents had no business substituting their judgment for the President’s. That’s not their job.

  3. Do we know for certain that things would have been worse had the President been there?

    How do we know that his presence would not have created a more calming effect on the crowd and influenced more responsible behavior.

    Answer: We don’t.

    Do we base our answer on what we think the consequences would have been?

    I’m voting unethical to disobey orders.

  4. Timing is important here. Was this before, or after the riot group had broken into the Capitol building?

    If before, I’d say they were wrong; if after, they were right.

    There is an interesting precedent here. During WWII Hitler had an SS Division as his personal bodyguard, whilst Churchill had a policeman with a pistol. You gotta love that man! On one occasion, as they were driving through Hyde Park, they thought they spotted a potential assassin ahead. Churchill, who also carried a pistol, was all for having at him, but his bodyguard overruled him and ordered the driver to turn around.

  5. Within hours of Hutchinson’s testimony the Secret Service officers in the SUV stated they would testify under oath that the events cited never occurred.
    The tactic of using “if true” renders the analysis nothing more than a hypothetical that allows people to pontificate in ways that expose their biases. No one knows what could have happened even if Trump did want to go to the Capitol. Further, it is likely that had Trump gone to the Capitol and prevented the melee it would be chalked up to moral luck. I don’t buy the idea that the officers disregarded an order however it is possible they suggested that the president reconsider and he did.

  6. I say discount anything and everything that oozes out of the January 6 Show Trial, er, Hearings. Doesn’t Turley have some papers to grade or some footnotes to check?

  7. I strongly dislike making ethics judgments when key facts are unknown. We can make some reasonable assumptions and reach a decision, but, in an academic exercise like this, we would be better served to have a more complete reading of the situation.
    Given that, I’ll stand with the Secret Service on what they are supposed to have done.
    Agents take the oath of office that all officers take, and it requires them to support and defend the Constitution, and that must take precedence over whatever else.
    By the time Trump was most of the way through his speech at the Ellipse, the agents would have known that the Capitol perimeter had been breached, that there were weapons at the Capitol grounds, that Trump in his speech had castigated other Service protectees (not all would agree that there were threats, but some in the mob certainly would take his words that way), and that he was very likely to further inflame the situation. An insurrection is a grievous threat to the Constitution. We can quibble over whether or not an insurrection was in progress, but, even if not, the potential was there and the agents could not add fuel to that fire.
    I believe Secret Service agents have the same obligation as members of the military when it comes to following orders, to know what is and what isn’t a legal order, and to refuse illegal orders. If Trump ordered them to take him to the Capitol, that sounds like a legal order. But, if he had become irrational, any orders would have to be considered in that light.
    Further, Turley may believe there was no imminent threat to Trump, but the agents who had more detailed information had to act on what they knew. They could not take the President into such a volatile and dangerous environment.
    They will be denounced by the ever-Trumpers, but they did the right thing.

  8. Let us first make a few assumptions:

    1. Trump did in fact order his detail to “Take him to the Capitol” with or without additional context.
    2. The detail, upon hearing this order, refused to obey.
    3. The refusal angered Trump.
    4. That’s all that happened. The vehicle returned to the White House.

    My analysis begins with the order. First, we must inquire if the order was lawful. If Trump merely ordered his detail to take him to the Capitol, that would seem on its face to be a lawful order that they could not legally refuse. To the extent Trump did not order them to take him to a place he was not legally allowed to be, the order appears lawful.

    If, on the other hand, Trump ordered them to the Capitol to mingle with the crowd and urge them on, that order would likely be questionable. First, it would’ve placed Trump in danger, and the Secret Service is tasked with protecting him. They may reasonably have concluded that they couldn’t do so under the circumstances of his demand.

    Also, if he suggested or stated that he intended to spur on the riot or inflame it further, that would seem to be a lawless order and subject to refusal.

    Trump’s anger at the refusal of the order is ethically inert. Whether or not the order was lawful, Trump may have expected his order to be obeyed regardless. That’s wrong, but being wrong about something like that doesn’t change the fact that he had a facially reasonable expectation his order would be obeyed.

    Your question:

    Did the Secret Service do the right, ethical thing in preventing President Trump from joining his supporters at the Capitol?

    We don’t know the full context of the order, or what his protection detail understood the President to mean. The detail may have understood him to mean a situation in which they couldn’t protect him, or was otherwise lawless.

    So my answer is: If the order was in fact for Trump to place himself in a situation the detail believed unsafe to the point they could not protect him, the verdict is “ethical and right.”

    If the order was otherwise lawless, as a suggestion he wanted to lead an assault on the Capitol or stop the official process underway, the verdict is “ethical and right.”

    If the order was merely to take him to the Capitol without any other explanation, my response would be, “ethical but wrong,” assuming the detail thought it was looking out for the President’s best interests by keeping him away. Also, they may have believed that notwithstanding the President’s order, keeping him away was the best thing for the country. In that case they substituted their judgement for his, and nobody elected them.

    That’s the best I’ve got.

    • I think it would be perfectly in character for Trump to throw a temper tantrum if the Secret Service said going to the Capitol would be a bad idea. He may have been angry, but still may never have ordered them to take him anyways against their recommendation. No lawful order need ever have been disobeyed at any point.

  9. Assuming, arguendo, that the facts presented are indeed actual facts, I’m going to come down squarely on the side of The Secret Service violated a lawful order if they refused to take the President to the Capitol.

    The Capitol Building is not just some random shopping mall; it’s a secured building of the federal government under the jurisdiction of the Capitol Police, and the rebuttable presumption is that it is already a location suitably secure for POTUS with minimal or no pre-screening.

    In the event that it was already known that there was ongoing violence of any sort at the Capitol Building, then the only proper response is to start the process of securing the location right then and there–with the understanding that the process may take longer than the President desires but is nonetheless necessary.

    For any member of the Executive Branch to straight-up defy the President’s orders cannot possibly be the proper response absent some specific legal justification (which I’ll grant may exist outside of my awareness–but then shouldn’t the news media be informing me of such a thing???).

    –Dwayne

  10. I think that AIM may have come closest, even though it’s based on an assumption that there’s some truth coming from the J6 group.
    DNZ, I think, is close, but the problem I have is that the Capitol Complex, while a Federal Enclave, isn’t truly secured, as USSS would define it.
    After doing some reading, I doubt that Pres Trump actually “ordered” his Agent/Driver and Detail Chief to go to the Capitol, much less got into a tussle. A President, at this point in a term, has to understand how to express a desire to go to place X and do Y, as the USSS has a legal obligation to protect the National Security (the president, in this case) while giving effect to the President’s desires. Absent advance work (yes, even a day, most likely) bring done, the USSS is obligated to design a protection plan that will keep the President safe while permitting the freedom of movement desired.
    IF the President DID make such a request (and he may have gotten angry if denied, but I doubt it after over 4 yearsof dealing with USSS) the Detail Chief made a correct AND ethical decision (if the request was truly made) by returning to the West Wing, in my view, because to do otherwise would be putting the President in jeopardy, something the Agents may not do absent an appropriately developed and implemented protection plan.
    The key to a “lawful order” referring to JG, as a 22+ year retired military officer, first (in my mind), is never to issue an order to a subordinate that, if obeyed, would cause the subordinate to break a law in its execution. There can be no lawful order from the President to a USSS Agent, therefore, that if obeyed would cause that Agent to break a law.
    Just a few thoughts (and thanks, Jack, for a stimulating quiz),
    MB

  11. Did the Secret Service do the right, ethical thing in preventing President Trump from joining his supporters at the Capitol?

    The only way to answer this question is to make a multitude of assumptions and that all the assumptions are true. Even then, additional unstated assumptions need to be made.

    Given all the assumptions, the president gave a lawful order. The Secret Service security team refused a lawful order. They did not do the right thing and their actions were unethical. Barring an imminent life-threatening danger, the Secret Service has no business deciding which of the President’s direct orders to follow.

    If we look objectively at the events in question, we know very few facts. The President was at point A; he was driven in “The Beast” to point B. Everything that happened between point A and Point B is hearsay, conjecture, misinterpretation, or fabrication by one or more parties.

    I do not find Cassidy Hutchinson’s second-hand account from people in the presidential limo to be credible. For example, she stated she was told “The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel.”

    Given the layout of the Beast’s rear compartment, this does not seem to be a truthful statement or Trump is one hell of a contortionist. This of course makes all her testimony questionable.

    I think Turley was unethical to write the blog post as he did with so little known. His roughly 1,300-word column contained 3 “if true” statements and multiple what-ifs, allegedlys, presumablys, and such. Never once does Turley personally cast doubt on the truthfulness of Hutchinson’s testimony. For example, Turley states, “The fact that Trump knew some of his followers were armed, according to Hutchinson’s testimony, only makes that prospect more nightmarish.” How was this “fact” established? Turley’s comment is sloppy or purposely misleading and therefore unethical.
    Another leap of faith in Turley’s post and Jack’s is that the secret service defied a direct order from the President. It is equally if not more credible that the President and the security detail heatedly argued back and forth multiple times and that the president relented and agreed that going to the White House was the prudent thing to do. If that occurred, Turley’s article is pointless unless his goal is to add fuel to the fire.

  12. It’s a tough one. Legally, contractually, the Secret Servicemen probably did wrong. Ethically, I’m less sure…. And I’m kind of glad they did.

    The story rings true to me, it was an open question from Trump supporters why he didn’t go to Capitol Hill like he said he would at the end of his speech… Perhaps one of the better answers from his perspective is “those assholes didn’t let me”. Past that…. It’s way too speculative to say with any degree of certainty whether January 6th would have been better or worse than it ended up being.

    The other side of this is that Hutchinson is the Amber Heard of political witnesses. I have no idea if any of the testimony is true because it is, at best, hearsay testimony, and at worst, made up from whole cloth. But the story that Trump lunged at the wheel or tried to strangle his captors is basically physically impossible, saying it brings into question the seriousness and credibility of the testimony… And that seems to have triggered the usual suspects.

    First… They’re saying “That was such a small part of the testimony” And… That’s true. But…

    1) It’s all the media was running with up until the wheels fell off of their narrative.
    2) If you’re willing to lie about the little things, why wouldn’t you lie about the things that matter?
    3) If these aren’t lies, but she was merely repeating dishonesties (because at some point, someone lied) is that materially any better?
    4) If it’s not important, why was it elicited?

    That fourth one gets me to the next problem with this witness…. Did the January 6th committee vet their witness or not? They brought her in because they apparently had “bombshell” testimony… But we’re talking about Congressmen. Important ones. What’s the chance that none of them had been in the back of The Beast before? What’s the chance they knew what she was described, honestly restated or not, could not possibly be true? Where’s the skepticism?

    The worst part of this, I think, is that the January 6th committee had already interviewed one of the secret servicemen. Either: 1) They never asked him the question. 2) They did, and he did not back up Hutchinson’s story or 3) They did, and he did. That last one seems unlikely, seeing as he’s saying that he’d be willing to go under oath and testify contrary to the narrative.

    This is all dirty. If it’s bullshit, they know it, and that’s gross. If it’s true, why ask Hutchinson at all? Why rely on hearsay when you have the firsthand accounts?

    • Good analysis, and I agree with it. Two points:

      1.Apparently Trump was in the SUV, not “the Beast,” but the media still can’t settle on its story, and the right-wing media is also either confused or obfuscating. It would have literally been impossible for Trump to even reach the driver in “The Beast,” which is a stretch Limo, essentially.

      2. As you know, if a “small part” of a witness’s testimony is fabricated and the subject isn’t trivial, the whole testimony becomes unreliable.

      • ” As you know, if a “small part” of a witness’s testimony is fabricated and the subject isn’t trivial, the whole testimony becomes unreliable.”

        Exactly… It’s possible that parts of her story are true, but they need someone more credible to make that statement, preferably someone with firsthand knowledge, and they need to stop torpedoing their credibility with performative bullshit like this.

        Look, the House isn’t supposed to be an investigative body, these hearings are meant to flesh out debate on what future policies or laws should look like to prevent things like Jan 6 from happening again… Instead we have this, and while this circus is happening there’s a parallel FBI investigation. Every witness that acts a fool for the commission is writing the script on their own cross during the actual proceeding. Merrick Garland, if he actually cared about doing a good job, ought to be frothing angry over this asshattery.

  13. Hutchinson undermined her entire testimony with the claim that Trump lunged for the steering wheel. If Trump, if the Secret Service…
    The SS says it never happened. I don’t know if their testimonies will be sought.

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