Secret Service officers detained at least four protesters, who were charged with unlawful entry at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, according to arrest records. The incident took place near the border between the White House lawn and Treasury Department, about 350 feet from the East Wing, and close to a Treasury fence line that has been at the center of past security failures.
The breach occurred around the time that the Secret Service alert level on the White House complex was elevated from “yellow” to “red,” according to a law enforcement official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal safety maneuvers. Officials familiar with the incident told colleagues that the president, the first lady and their son Barron were rushed to the bunker because of the episode, according to two people familiar with their accounts.
The events contradict the president’s claim Wednesday that he went to the bunker simply to inspect the secure location.
Two of the people who were arrested said they were stunned by the idea that their actions prompted the abrupt relocation of the president.
“I didn’t even realize what I did was illegal,” said one of the protesters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending charges. “I stepped over a barricade. I never got onto the Treasury grounds or White House grounds.”
The White House and Secret Service declined to comment on what precipitated Trump’s move to the bunker, part of a classified security system for safeguarding the president.
“The White House does not comment on security protocols and decisions,” spokesman Judd Deere said in an emailed statement.
“For operational security reasons, the U.S. Secret Service does not discuss our protectees or our protective means and methods relative to all U.S. Secret Service protected facilities inclusive of the White House,” an agency spokesperson said.
Trump, who has been angered by reports that he was moved to the secure underground facility and the impression that he was in hiding, on Wednesday disputed that he was rushed to safety.
“It was a false report. I wasn’t down,” Trump told Fox Radio host Brian Kilmeade. “I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny, little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day.”
Pressed by Kilmeade on whether Trump was “inspecting” the bunker because the Secret Service expressed concern for his safety, the president insisted that wasn’t the case.
“Nope, they didn’t tell me that at all,” Trump said. “They said it would be a good time to go down, take a look, because maybe some time you’re going to need it.”
Former Secret Service agents said Trump’s explanation did not make sense, noting that all presidents and their families are routinely given a security briefing in their first days in office. They are briefed on steps the Secret Service will take in an emergency and also shown secure locations where they will be taken in case of danger.
Relocation to the underground bunker is part of various security steps the Secret Service may use in the case of potential threats to the president’s safety.
The incursion by protesters near the White House complex Friday came as swelling demonstrations filled the streets of downtown Washington in response to the killing of George Floyd, with many people rushing barricades and throwing bottles. It was the first night of protests in the District, and the large crowd swarming so close to the White House took Secret Service officers aback, officials said.
Lone protesters have sometimes tried to make a statement by jumping the fence, but not since the civil unrest of the 1960s have groups come directly at the White House grounds in such numbers.
Trump’s frustration with the impression that he was in hiding amid the tumult contributed to his decision Monday to walk from the White House to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Less than 30 minutes before his walk, federal agents rushed at protesters in Lafayette Square and an adjoining street with shields and batons, tossing gas canisters and pepper spray pellets into the crowd, causing a chaotic scurry.
The arrests Friday took place near a Treasury Department fence line that borders the White House grounds and has figured in key security failures in the past, including a March 2017 incident when Trump was at home and was also rushed to the bunker for a short period.
In that incident, Jonathan Tuan-Anh Tran, a California man carrying two cans of Mace and a letter to Trump about “Russian hackers,” hopped the Treasury fence line. Due to outdated and failing sensors and alarms, he was able to reach the east side of the mansion and attempted to open doors there. Tran remained on the property for 17 minutes before he was spotted behind a pillar and apprehended near the South Portico entrance.
The entire White House fence line was recommended for replacement after a 2014 fence-jumper incident, but the portion around Treasury had been delayed by Secret Service budget constraints.
Alice Crites, John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.