When the President travels nothing is taken for granted, not even the co-occupants of the presidential elevator, raising new questions about how an armed man with a criminal history managed to get within arm’s length of President Barack Obama last month.
A week before every presidential trip—often longer for foreign travel—”advance” teams from the U.S. Secret Service, the White House, and other government agencies trace every step the president will take, as well as alternates for every contingency. Plans are drawn up for who will sit where on Air Force One and which vehicle in the President’s mile-long motorcade aides will occupy, according to multiple individuals familiar with presidential travel, including law enforcement personnel.
Officials said the manifests are largely logistical in nature, devised to clear up which aides will travel with the president and “the shift,” the personal detail assigned to him. “There may be 35 people with him in a freight elevator in a sporting arena, or just a few in a cramped one in an old-school Chicago high rise,” one veteran said. Other aides, members of the press, and additional Secret Service agents will be shuttled in other marked elevators or will take the stairs, depending on the site. Occasionally a space for an “elevator operator” is reserved, especially when the president is set to move in a freight elevator, but often they are not named on the manifest.
“Elevator manifests are a standard procedure,” said a law enforcement official, citing the logistical challenge of moving the president, his aides, his bodyguards, and the traveling press without a hitch. Which is another reason the Secret Service will remain in the sights of Congressional overseers even after Wednesday’s announced resignation by Julia Pierson, the agency’s beleaguered director.
A private contractor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta boarded the presidential elevator on Sept. 16 and wouldn’t heed orders to stop photographing Obama. Agents pulled the man aside for questioning after Obama left the elevator, at which point the man’s supervisor fired him on the spot for his behavior. It was only then that officers discovered that the man, who was arrested several times, was carrying a firearm, officials said.
The security breach came days before an armed man leaped over the White House fence and charged past an agent at the North Portico door before being arrested near the Green Room, an incident that prompted renewed public scrutiny for the agency.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Obama was not informed of the elevator incident until minutes before it was first reported by the Washington Examiner on Tuesday afternoon. Congressional sources said outgoing Secret Service Director Julia Pierson did not mention the security lapse in her classified testimony to lawmakers Tuesday, despite being asked whether there were any undisclosed security incidents that she was aware of. Pierson tendered her resignation Wednesday after losing the support of Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. “The President concluded that new leadership of that agency was required,” Earnest said.
Whether the still-unidentified individual was named on the manifest, was unnamed, or had simply managed to enter the elevator with the president is one subject of the ongoing internal probe into the incident. Either way, officials said, the man should not have been able to carry the weapon that close to the President. The Secret Service would not comment on the status of the ongoing investigation.
With reporting by Alex Rogers / Washington