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Investigation

Unmasked: Secret Service Photos and Videos Show Departures from Social Distancing

Summer Outbreak at Training Academy Delivered a Warning
(Photo: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

A Secret Service tweet posted on September 24 shows a uniformed Secret Service canine officer meeting a 16-year-old girl. In one photo, the officer and the girl embrace, their heads touching or almost touching, as they face the camera. In another photo, the officer leans in toward the girl and attaches a pin to her yellow dress, their faces inches apart.

Neither is wearing a mask.

The caption says:

“Sometimes our K-9s get to take a break from their hard work to meet new friends. Last week, K-9 Busta and Officer-Technician Burke had the distinct pleasure of visiting with 16-year-old Chloe while she was on her way to meet with @VP @Mike_Pence.”

A C-SPAN video dated September 9 shows the girl hugging Vice President Mike Pence in front of an audience at a “Life Wins” anti-abortion event in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Neither is wearing a mask.

Much has been said and written about the extraordinary risks Secret Service personnel have faced as a result of President Donald Trump’s disdain for masks, his determination to participate in gatherings that defy social distancing, and his behavior since he was medevacked to a military hospital on October 2 with a case of COVID-19.

Reporting by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) raises questions about the degree of care taken by the Secret Service itself to prevent the virus from spreading and the effectiveness of the agency’s own precautions.

The otherwise heartwarming pictures of the Secret Service officer and the girl in the yellow dress are part of a larger mosaic. Some of that information had gone undisclosed, and some was showcased in plain sight, if generally unnoticed, on the agency’s social media feeds.

At minimum, the promotional images show that, on social media, the Secret Service has not been consistently modeling social distancing.

Long before Trump was hospitalized, there were warning signs that even the vaunted Secret Service couldn’t protect him from the coronavirus, let alone from himself. Agents got sick. Members of the White House staff got sick. After attending an indoor Trump rally where few people wore masks, a prominent Trump supporter got sick and died.

Then, far from the public eye and miles from the White House, the contagion penetrated one of the Secret Service’s inner sanctums: its Maryland training center, where new recruits go to learn about presidential protection and where agency veterans go to hone their skills.

In August, at least 11 people at the training center tested positive for COVID-19, as the New York Times has reported.

Far from the public eye and miles from the White House, the contagion penetrated one of the Secret Service’s inner sanctums: its Maryland training center.

Trainees may have spread the virus at a party celebrating their impending graduation.

“The details about the outbreak were uncovered by the Project on Government Oversight,” the Times story explained. “The organization brought that information to The New York Times, which independently confirmed specifics with people briefed on the matter.”

“Some of the personnel are believed to have contracted the virus during training exercises and at a graduation celebration inside a nearby hotel where they did not practice social distancing, the people said,” the Times reported.

The Times published its account on October 2, shortly after Trump’s diagnosis became public.

Over the summer, the Secret Service posted a series of videos on social media purporting to follow members of Special Agent Training Course #384 through their training. The videos appear to show departures from social distancing.

A Secret Service tweet dated July 10 shows people doing push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups without masks and, at times, working almost face-to-face with each other in a crowded gym.

“Recruits will learn the policies and procedures associated with the dual responsibilities of investigations and protection while adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines,” the tweet says.

A July 31 installment in the series shows members of the group wearing masks but in direct physical contact with each other during what is described as their emergency medicine practical exam. In the simulation, they go through the motions of attending to and carrying a fallen colleague.

An August 8 installment shows five people wearing face coverings, but sharing an elevator.

An August 22 installment in the series says, “Special Agent Training Course #384 continues protective driving,” and shows two men without masks seated next to each other in the front seat of a car.

To be sure, some Secret Service training might be incompatible with social distancing. That includes instruction in so-called control tactics, which bear a resemblance to hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. Control tactics are used to block attackers.

On August 25, in another piece of the mosaic, District of Columbia Fire and EMS reported that a van carrying Secret Service recruit graduates stopped at the scene of a crash on Suitland Parkway and that the graduates rendered assistance. A photo of the uniformed Secret Service officers shows nine wearing masks but standing elbow to elbow in front of a van—apparently illustrating how tightly the vehicle would have been packed.

In a related tweet, the Secret Service said a group of recently graduated Uniformed Division officers were returning from an assignment when they pulled over to help.

POGO cannot state with certainty when the training academy videos posted by the Secret Service were made; we can only note when they were posted. The July 10 installment includes video of people wearing jackets, suggesting that at least those segments of the tweet could have been recorded earlier in the year, before the virus exploded into a national emergency. In other videos, the use of masks indicates that the scenes took place during the pandemic.

POGO gave the Secret Service repeated opportunities to explain the social media posts from the summer.

When we asked in August how they square with COVID-19 prevention, the agency did not say. When we contacted the agency again this month, spokesperson Cathy Milhoan said the Secret Service would not go beyond a previous statement but invited written questions and then did not respond to them.

In late August and again on October 2, POGO also asked the Secret Service questions about the outbreak at the training center. The agency did not specifically confirm or deny any factual information about it.

“Outbreak is your word,” Milhoan said in a September 1 phone call with POGO. “So that’s the way you’re characterizing it.”

Asked if she would characterize it differently, Milhoan said the agency would not go beyond a statement the agency provided in response to POGO’s written questions. In part, the August 31 statement said:

The agency takes all appropriate precautions to protect our workforce, our protectees, and the public from exposure to COVID-19. Precautions include, but are not limited to, maintaining appropriate social distancing, the provision and use of PPE [personal protective equipment], routine testing when appropriate, whether before, during, or after official travel, or as individualized situations and potential exposure necessitates. …

The U.S. Secret Service remains prepared and staffed to fulfill all of the various duties as required. Any implication that the agency is in some way unprepared or incapable of executing our mission would be inaccurate.

To protect the privacy of our employees’ health information and for operational security, the Secret Service is not releasing how many of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19, nor how many of its employees were, or currently are, quarantined.

Any U.S. Secret Service employee who may have tested positive would have been immediately isolated and returned home and out of the working environment. Considerations would also be taken to ensure the least amount of contact with the public.

Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. Secret Service has taken significant precautions at its training center to protect the health and welfare of its trainees and training staff.

The agency did not respond to questions about the September tweet featuring the canine officer and the girl in the yellow dress.

If anyone in the endearing scene was responsible for maintaining social distance, setting an example, and protecting all concerned, it was presumably the Secret Service, not the girl.

Pence’s maskless September 9 appearance with 16-year-old Chloe Kondrich in Pennsylvania, at which he spoke of “the unalienable right to life,” took place as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approached 200,000.

That is more than four times the population of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. It is also more than four times the number of Americans killed in battle in the Vietnam War, which spanned more than a decade and multiple presidencies. It is more than 67 times the death toll from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

Chloe Kondrich’s mother, Margaret Kondrich, said in a telephone interview that the visit with the Secret Service dog and officer took place outside the church where the event with the vice president was held. She said Chloe and her father were required to get tested for the virus before meeting with Pence. They had driven to get the 24-hour test before the encounter shown in the Secret Service tweet, she said.

As the recent outbreak of COVID-19 at the White House shows, testing has limits as a strategy to prevent the virus from spreading. In addition to the president and first lady and various people who attended a Rose Garden event introducing Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, several members of the White House staff have tested positive recently. They include presidential adviser Stephen Miller and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, each of whom said that, before they tested positive, their daily tests came back negative.

“Over the last five days I have been working remotely and self-isolating, testing negative every day through yesterday,” Miller said in an October 7 statement quoted in news reports. “Today, I tested positive for Covid-19 and am in quarantine.”

Similarly, on October 5, McEnany tweeted, “After testing negative consistently, including every day since Thursday, I tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning while experiencing no symptoms.”

White House carelessness about coronavirus prevention has prompted some journalists and major news organizations to refrain from traveling with the president, the New York Times reported on Oct. 12. “Among the concerns raised by reporters: Many flight attendants and Secret Service agents on Air Force One have not worn masks,” the Times reported.

Margaret Kondrich said that, at the event in Pennsylvania and on earlier occasions when Chloe was with Pence and Trump, Secret Service personnel have been very sweet to Chloe.

“Their jobs are very demanding and serious … and then they see this tiny little girl with Down syndrome,” she said. “We see the compassionate side of them.”