Presidential candidates don’t normally receive Secret Service protection until the summer before the election. But these are not normal times. They are dangerous ones — for candidates, elected officials and federal judges. When candidates face lethal threats, as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did last week, it’s time to give them protection.
The decision is up to President Biden. If he orders the Secret Service to protect Kennedy, it’s done. If not, not. And “not” is Biden’s current decision. It’s a dangerous, mean-spirited political calculation. Political? Yes, surrounding Kennedy with a Secret Service detail elevates his status as a serious candidate. That doesn’t help Biden’s own candidacy.
The president’s willingness to leave a political opponent in danger ranks right up there with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision to withhold protection from Supreme Court justices, who were being intimidated and threatened at their homes. Garland’s failure ignored a clear-cut statute and a concrete danger to federal jurists.
You don’t have to favor those justices or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to demand our government do its best to ensure their safety. The government has that general responsibility for all citizens, but the responsibility is much greater when those citizens are running for office, serving as elected officials or sitting as judges. The responsibility is acute when the threat is tangible.
For both Kennedy and the Supreme Court justices, the lethal threat is not imaginary. In the justices’ case, a man traveled across state lines with guns, ammunition, duct tape and zip ties, intending to kill Justice Brett Kavanaugh and perhaps others on the High Court. He told the arresting officers he had purchased the gun to kill Kavanaugh.
In RFK Jr.’s case, the threat came from a man impersonating a United States marshal, complete with two loaded pistols, a spare ammunition magazine and fraudulent identification as a federal agent. He breached the candidate’s security perimeter and posed a direct threat to him, which ended only when Kennedy’s private security detail recognized the false identity and seized the man. Then, they had to wait for police to arrive and make an arrest. Even more chilling, all this happened in Los Angeles, where the candidate’s father was assassinated.
The Biden White House is unmoved by these palpable dangers, at least so far. They are still refusing to provide the protection RFK Jr. needs and deserves. The candidate’s campaign manager, Dennis Kucinich, wrote the White House immediately after the incident and reiterated his plea for protection. RFK Jr. tweeted a similar request. Biden’s team continued to reject it. The obvious question is “why?”
The answer should be equally obvious. It is a political decision. Biden and his aides believe it in the president’s best interest as a candidate. That’s not because they want Kennedy harmed. They certainly don’t. But neither do they want to do anything that would identify him as a major candidate. Giving him Secret Service protection would be a step in that direction.
In denying Kennedy protection, Joe Biden was acting as a candidate for reelection. That’s not the role in which he should be making this decision. He should be acting solely the head of state and leader of our country, a non-partisan role. In that role, he is charged with protecting our elected officials, candidates for those offices, and federal judges, among others, whether or not he agrees with their policies or decisions. Dangers to them are dangers to our system of self-government. The president has a solemn responsibility to do his best to keep them safe and preserve our constitutional order.
That responsibility — preserving our constitutional order — is why the most serious charge against Donald Trump is that he abandoned that obligation after losing the election and especially in the lead-up to January 6. That charge sticks, whether or not he committed a legal violation. His actions dealt a deliberate blow to the peaceful, orderly transfer of power.
Biden’s refusal to protect opposing political candidates is far less serious, as long as RFK Jr. remains safe. But it raises a similar basic question. Is the president of the United States acting as a partisan, political official or as the non-partisan head of state? The president occupies both roles. Most of the time, it is perfectly appropriate for him to act politically. He does so every time he proposes legislation or nominates Cabinet officers.
What concerns Biden and his team is not that Kennedy could defeat him — that’s very unlikely — but signaling that there is a contest for the nomination. That signal would open the door, ever so slightly, to other, more formidable candidates, just as Gene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary opened the door for Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Biden’s political aides don’t want to send that signal.
What could change Biden’s calculations? First, there could be another potential attack or, worse, an actual one, against a candidate from either party. The more dangerous the incident, the more Biden will figure he’s better off providing security than taking the political heat from failing to provide it.
Second, Biden might buckle under public pressure, particularly if that came from mainstream news outlets. At that point, Biden’s team might decide it was less costly politically (and less risky) to provide Secret Service protection to RFK Jr. and perhaps others.
It’s a sleazy business to see life-and-death decisions based on these raw political calculations. In the balance are the lives of presidential candidates and Supreme Court Justices and, beyond them, the country’s sense of political stability. That sense was shattered in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. We should learn from that painful memory. Our government should do everything in its power to ensure candidates and public officials can do their jobs safely in today’s perilous environment.