Almost as soon as President Obama decided that Julia Pierson had to go as director of the Secret Service, he knew exactly whom he wanted to replace her.
On Wednesday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama, aides said, personally recommended to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that the administration reach out to former special agent Joseph Clancy, who retired in 2011 after serving as chief of Obama’s protective detail for two years.
McDonough relayed the message to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who called Clancy in his home town of Philadelphia, where he was working as head of security for Comcast, the aides said. Johnson asked him to take over for Pierson in the wake of the Secret Service’s worst crisis in three decades.
Within hours of Pierson’s resignation, the White House announced that Clancy, 58, would return to Washington as acting director until a full-time replacement is named. He’ll start early next week, aides said, and will quickly be briefed on the security failures that helped lead to Pierson’s downfall.
The Obamas “know and trust Mr. Clancy from his time working here at the White House and being the head of their detail,” Shawn Turner, deputy White House press secretary, said Thursday. “They believe he has the right temperament to lead the Secret Service.”
To the president, Clancy, who also served in the protective details for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton during a 25-year career, was the obvious choice. He has decades of experience with the agency but is not tarred by the recent scandals. Under Bush, he served as the head of security at the White House complex — now valuable experience with the Secret Service criticized for failing to apprehend an armed intruder who sprinted through unlocked doors and into the White House two weeks ago.
But perhaps even more important, Clancy offers Obama and his family a level of personal trust and comfort at a time when their safety has been called into question, said associates who served with him.
“The president, like all of us, felt things were under control when Joe was there,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, who accompanied the president — and Clancy — on several trips.
Axelrod recalled a visit to Ghana in 2009, with Clancy clamping down tightly on crowd control when there was great excitement over Obama’s first trip to Africa. And he cited Clancy’s decision to ground Marine One during a sandstorm on a trip to Iraq, instead insisting that the Iraqi prime minister drive to Camp Victory, around Baghdad, to meet with Obama.
“Joe was always calm, always in command,” Axelrod said. “The president developed a great deal of trust in him. More than anything, he had the sense that whatever judgment needed to be made, he would make the right ones.”
Former presidential advisers said it is no surprise Obama tapped his former detail chief — known as the “special agent in charge” — because that relationship is among the most unique in any administration: The president must essentially entrust his life to that agent.
Ralph Basham, who led the Secret Service from 2003 to 2006 under Bush, had been the detail leader for President George H.W. Bush. Basham’s predecessor, Lew Merletti, had been Clinton’s detail chief before being elevated to the top job in 1997.
“This is almost a family affair,” Basham, in an interview, said of the bond between commander in chief and special agent in charge. “They live together, work together, travel with each other all the time.”
Lead agents on the protective detail ride in the presidential limousine, hold on to the president’s waistband in a crowd and, on occasion, “get in his face” to dissuade him from straying into unsafe areas, according to former Secret Service officials and presidential aides.
Clancy is described by associates as a no-nonsense agent who made up in dedication what he may have lacked in flamboyance. His nickname is “Father Joe,” a reference to the legend that he considered becoming a priest before he joined the Secret Service. But former special agent Mickey Nelson, who worked closely with Clancy for years, acknowledged that story is perhaps apocryphal.
Others said the name simply aims to describe Clancy’s integrity and character. Clancy, who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., for a year before transferring to Villanova University, was with Clinton at Korea’s tense demilitarized zone in 1993 when the president strayed too far over the “Bridge of No Return” that led from the South to the North, according to a book by former agent Dan Emmett.
It was Clancy, according to Emmett’s account, who radioed to alert his colleagues that North Korean guards on the other side of the bridge had brandished rifles as the presidential entourage approached the bridge — a nerve-racking situation that was resolved peacefully after Clinton finished his tour.
“Joe’s a pretty ‘Yes, sir; no, sir,’ just-the-facts kind of guy,” said Nelson, who said Clancy rose from rank-and-file agent to shift leader to head of the detail. “He’s very well versed in every level.”
Before Obama took office, when Clancy was the deputy special agent in charge under Bush, he worked out of a ground-floor office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. He oversaw an operation that included counter snipers on the roof, a heavily armed SWAT team that patrols the grounds, gate officers, canine units and security cameras.
Some Secret Service officials, who spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations, praised Clancy as a well-respected veteran but suggested that he was unlikely to enact the tough reforms that might be needed.
However, Steve Atkiss, who served as George W. Bush’s special assistant for operations, said that Clancy is likely to have suggestions for additional security measures that he might have wanted during his time at the White House but which were denied because of the expense or political considerations.
“One silver lining to the chaos of the last two weeks is that hopefully they have the congressional support and the administration’s backing to push through these things and get them done,” Atkiss said.
Ultimately, though, Clancy’s most valuable role for the Obamas is likely to be that he provides a sense that order has been restored. Photos of Obama’s early years in office often feature the balding, stone-faced man following closely behind him.
In one, Clancy abandons his usual reserve and, in a sign of the high comfort level he enjoys in the presidential inner circle, is seen fist-bumping Obama’s former personal aide, Reggie Love, as they walk toward Marine One.