Staff changes are typical with the arrival of a new president and are designed to increase the trust and comfort the incoming president feels with his protective agents, who often stand by the president’s side during sensitive discussions and private moments.
But the shifts underway occur at a particularly contentious time, as Trump has blamed his reelection loss on unfounded allegations of voter fraud and has sought to block his administration from treating Biden as the president-elect. Some in the Secret Service also came under criticism during Trump’s tenure for appearing to embrace his political agenda.
For instance, some presidential detail members urged other agents and Secret Service officers not to wear masks on presidential trips this year — against the administration’s own public health guidance — as the president felt wearing masks projected weakness, The Washington Post has reported.
The Secret Service also took the unprecedented step of allowing the former detail leader to temporarily leave his job to become a White House political adviser. Anthony Ornato was hired as White House deputy chief of staff earlier this year. In that role, he helped coordinate a controversial June photo opportunity in which Trump strode defiantly across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible after the park was forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters.
Ornato also helped coordinate numerous rallies across the country during the pandemic, per Trump’s wishes. The mass gatherings were blamed for increasing the spread of the coronavirus in some of the communities where they took place and left many in the ranks of the Secret Service infected or exposed.
More than 130 Secret Service officers and dozens of Secret Service agents helping to protect the president and vice president either tested positive for the coronavirus in 2020 or had to quarantine because of suspected contact with infected co-workers.
Ornato will be leaving the White House and is slated to return to the Secret Service to become the assistant director overseeing the agency’s Rowley Training Center, according to the people familiar with the changes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe personnel decisions. The posting is prestigious but outside of the president’s immediate protection team.
Meanwhile, some well-respected supervisory agents who worked on the protective detail for Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, during the Obama administration are set to join the presidential protection team come Jan. 20. That includes Darryl Volpicelli, who will become the second-in-command of President Biden’s detail, and Brian McDonough, who will become a senior detail supervisor, according to the people familiar with the changes.
“That is smart to give the incoming president the comfort of the familiar,” said one former Secret Service executive, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel changes. “You want him to be with people he knows and trusts, and who also know how he operates.”
A White House spokesman and Biden transition officials declined to comment for this story.
Secret Service spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan declined to comment on Ornato’s White House role or the staffing changes but said the Secret Service remains true to its apolitical mission.
“The U.S. Secret Service is uniquely authorized to provide protection to designated U.S. and other world leaders and remains steadfastly dedicated to a standard of excellence in those operations, wholly apolitically and unaffiliated with the political parties of protectees,” Milhoan’s statement said. “As a matter of practice and due to operational security, the agency does not comment on protective operations inclusive of internal decisions on agency assignments. ”
All incoming presidents need to feel comfort and trust in their Secret Service protection team, whose agents shadow them wherever they go and stand as silent witnesses to their private moments. But not all presidents have felt sure of their protectors upon their arrival.
Notably, President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton were highly distrustful of the agents around them early on, fearing the detail agents had grown very close to President George H.W. Bush and were the sources of leaks to reporters about a few private details of their first months in the mansion.
The addition of the vice president’s former protective agents to the presidential detail after such a long gap in time is somewhat unusual. Both Volpicelli and McDonough had moved on to higher supervisory positions since Biden was in the White House. But this is the first time since Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory that a vice president has won the presidential election several years after serving in the White House.
The Secret Service also plans to name a new special agent to lead the Biden presidential detail, David Cho, according to the people familiar with the changes. Known as a perfectionist supervisor, he had risen to become the second-in-command of the protective detail during the Trump administration.
Cho was awarded the Department of Homeland Security’s gold medal for exceptional service in 2019 for his negotiations with North Korean officials to arrange security for Trump’s historic visit there, while still overseeing security planning at the White House complex.