The officers on duty who came running in the dark struggled, though, to find any sign of the mystery intruder. By then, 26-year-old Jonathan Tran had already hopped two more barriers, made it past three manned security posts and advanced to the eastern entrance of the home of a newly inaugurated President Donald Trump. Tran pressed his face against the windows to peer inside and jiggled a door handle to see if it would open. Then the young man rounded the corner, heading toward the South Portico, which presented a half-dozen different doorways and an ornate marble staircase, all leading to the home of the world leader who had been watching television upstairs.
Over the course of 17 minutes, Tran enjoyed a relaxed ramble around the grounds, eluded a team of 15 trained security professionals who were alerted to a likely burglar and crossed 200 yards of White House property without being stopped. Tran even had time to sit for a bit and tie his shoe.
Officer Wayne Azevedo, the first Secret Service guard to spot Tran, saw a dark figure ducking behind a pillar under the mansion.
“What are you doing here?” the officer barked as he briskly approached.
“I am a friend of the president,” said Tran. “I have an appointment.”
“How’d you get in here?” Azevedo asked, the two men now nearly face to face.
“I jumped the fence,” Tran replied.
The security breach, many details of which are first revealed in the book “Zero Fail,” was the result of a cascade of failures in nearly every defense the Secret Service uses to shield what is supposed to be the most carefully protected 18 acres in the world. But more unnerving to some was that it represented a repeat of a similar stunning lapse just two and a half years earlier — one so embarrassing that it had sparked multiple investigations, a management overhaul and promises from officials at every level that such a breakdown would never happen again.
The 2014 incident — in which a disabled Iraq War veteran scaled the fence and ran across the lawn and into the front door unimpeded — was considered one of the most humiliating White House security mishaps in decades. In contrast, the breach two months into Trump’s tenure barely registered with the new administration, nor did it gain much notice in a Washington political climate consumed with revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 election and a daily blizzard of incendiary presidential tweets.
Trump praised his new guards for doing a “great job” in catching the intruder, and he dismissed the notion of a serious threat. Tran would later plead guilty to trespassing, and a judge sentenced him to two years’ probation and ordered he not go near the White House again.
“It was a troubled person,” Trump said. “It was very sad.”
To some agency officials and other close watchers of its history and challenges, the 2017 incident and the new president’s response marked a new and potentially troubling turn.
The Secret Service, chronically cash-strapped since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had been trying to recover and rebuild after a long string of security gaffes and incidents of drunken misconduct during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
But in early 2017, the Secret Service’s problems were simply not a front-burner issue. And the president’s muted response foreshadowed looming troubles for the agency during his tenure — setting back some of the progress that had been made following the uproar in 2014, according to some inside the agency. What’s more, Trump’s travel schedule and family were adding to the strain.
First, Trump intended to escape Washington to golf at one of his private clubs as much as every other weekend, forcing his entire security apparatus to follow him to Mar-a-Lago seven times in his first three months as president. Next, the first lady chose to live at Trump Tower for the first half of 2017, forcing the Service to take on a protection challenge it had never shouldered before: securing a 58-floor skyscraper in America’s busiest city.
By March, when Tran made his jump, the Service knew it was hemorrhaging money and sought an emergency $60 million injection for the unprecedented expenses of protecting the Trumps.
“Trump has set back this agency 10 years,” said one former Secret Service agent who left during Trump’s term, one of dozens of current and former agents interviewed for “Zero Fail” who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their sensitive work. “The overall culture and way of doing things took a big step back.”
A spokesperson for former president Trump declined to comment.
Catherine Milhoan, a spokesperson for the Secret Service, said the agency was unable to comment.
“Unfortunately our agency was not extended the same courtesy that others were and provided an advance copy of the book so that we can appropriately respond to any allegations,” Milhoan said.
The concerns about renewed problems inside the agency reflected competing feelings among those who worked there during the former president’s tenure.
Trump won the admiration of many of the Service’s conservative-leaning agents, especially those responsible for protecting him, who applauded his positions on imposing harsher penalties on criminals and building a border wall.
But his actions put added strain on the agency at times, including pushing its personnel into political roles the Service has traditionally avoided.
The Service temporarily assigned the head of Trump’s protection detail to work as a political adviser in the White House. It was a job executing Trump’s political agenda and promoting his image for reelection, a role that broke the Secret Service’s sacred pledge to protect the office, not a party or a politician. Former agents across several generations recoiled at the news.
In June 2020, the president deployed the agency to help forcibly remove peaceful protesters outside the White House, who were protesting the police killing of George Floyd and broader issues of systemic racism. The purpose was to allow Trump to look tough for a photo opportunity.
Throughout that summer, agents and officers were sent out amid a pandemic to secure the president’s campaign rallies across the country, a presidential choice that led to more than 300 Secret Service agents and officers testing positive for the coronavirus or being exposed to infected co-workers.
And in October, the president decided to take a ride with his agents out of his hospital room, fresh from his own diagnosis with covid-19, to show voters he was making a rapid recovery.
Former administration officials and agents said Trump’s focus on image rather than on the details of governing let the Secret Service avoid the self-examination it desperately needed.
“We just don’t look at ourselves critically enough to make the necessary changes to really improve,” the agent said. “It was bad before, Trump just made it much worse by not holding us accountable to that ideal.”
The troubling signs were apparent to some in the administration in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 intrusion.
The morning after, Gen. John F. Kelly, the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, learned about a jumper making it onto the ground the previous night, not from the Secret Service, but from the early-morning news reports. He was more than annoyed, but he kept his composure, telling his chief of staff he wanted some answers quickly from the Service’s acting director, Billy Callahan.
Kelly was heading to a series of meetings with the president at Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia. After a round of golf, Trump summoned members of the press pool into the club to see that he was holding a meeting that included some of his Cabinet members and their wives. A reporter asked Trump what he thought of yet another intruder getting within steps of the White House mansion.
“Secret Service did a fantastic job,” Trump declared about the jumper’s arrest.
The Secret Service leadership, however, took comfort in the president’s words and declined to answer questions from reporters that day about whether all the alarms worked and how the jumper had crossed so much ground without impediment.
Kelly checked in with his chief of staff, Kirstjen Nielsen, who said the Service was dragging its feet, not giving her a full picture of what happened. Kelly told Nielsen to summon Callahan for a briefing immediately, and to bring the security tapes from Friday night. “Enough with the bits and pieces,” he said. “Get ’em over here. I want to know what we knew, what we didn’t, and what the hell happened.”
Callahan told Kelly his team was still interviewing all the officers and commanders on duty that night and working on a PowerPoint presentation. They sat down to give Kelly a full briefing that next Friday, St. Patrick’s Day.
Kelly was horrified as he watched the tapes, with Tran casually and easily evading the officers searching for him. The worst part was realizing many parts of the so-called cutting-edge technology the Service relied on to prevent any intrusion on the White House had profoundly failed that night. A crucial sensor that normally detects movement coming over the fence line was on the fritz, so it never sounded an alarm to the Joint Operations Center. One of the motion-activated lights that were supposed to flash when someone crossed the White House grounds didn’t work. A camera in the eastern portion of the grounds where Tran entered wasn’t functioning properly. Then the officer who spotted Tran couldn’t reach fellow officers because his radio was malfunctioning.
Kelly put his hand to his forehead and asked Callahan how in the world all of these systems could have failed. Callahan explained they had run out of money to repair some of these devices, but they hoped to eventually get the funds and get them repaired or replaced. Callahan and his deputies explained this was not the end of the world, because the Service had several duplicating layers of security on the grounds to protect against any single failure. Kelly sat back for a minute, saying nothing. In this case, he reminded them, none of those extra layers, neither the officers nor the canines, had worked. Kelly saw a White House that was unacceptably vulnerable, and a Secret Service leadership that didn’t seem all that concerned.
Callahan declined to be interviewed but said through a spokesperson that he may not have worn it on his sleeve, but he believed the breach was a very serious one.
Details of Callahan’s briefing leaked to lawmakers and then to reporters.
“He was on the grounds for more than 15 minutes before we found him,” one whistleblower told a congressional staffer. Staff working for then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who had led a broad investigation of the Secret Service after the 2014 jumper incident, began gathering information about this new one.
The Secret Service issued a new statement that afternoon, altering considerably its previous claim that it had successfully apprehended a jumper. The statement said surveillance cameras and alarms showed that Tran had jumped over the Treasury fence at 11:21 p.m., hopped two more fences on the White House grounds, and hadn’t been found by an officer until 11:38 p.m.
“The men and women of the Secret Service are extremely disappointed and angry in how the events of March 10 transpired,” the statement read.
The following Monday, at Kelly’s invitation, Chaffetz came to a closed Secret Service briefing to see the same videotapes of the incident that the Joint Operations Center had collected. Just as Kelly had, Chaffetz recoiled watching Tran slip past officers, tie his shoes and pull on an East Wing door handle.
“Did you not have adequate staff on duty that night?” Chaffetz asked Callahan in the briefing.
“No, sir,” Callahan said. “We staffed it the way we always do.”
“It was painful to watch,” Chaffetz later recalled. “Everyone was slow and pathetic and inadequate. This is by far the worst one and most inadequate and scary. They just didn’t respond.”
The Service leadership seemed unfazed.
“I appreciate that he didn’t try to excuse this,” Chaffetz said of the acting director. “But it scared me to hear him say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ ”
Jonathan Wackrow, a former agent on Obama’s protection detail, said the failure on March 10 should have spurred the White House to finally address the vulnerabilities laid bare in September 2014.
“The talking point from the Secret Service is that this is a success,” Wackrow said of Tran’s capture. “It was a success by default. Your success shouldn’t be predicated on the attacker’s failure. This is absolute negligence [by the directors]. . . . The fence is the same size, technology is obviously failing, the training must not be working. It’s a fundamental failure on every level.”