The Slatest

Would a Former President Get Secret Service Protection in Prison?

What about a former first lady?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands at a debate.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has told the president he’s not a criminal target in the Russia investigation, but that doesn’t mean Trump could never be indicted or imprisoned. Meanwhile, the White House and its allies continue to agitate for a criminal investigation of former first lady Hillary Clinton, in an apparent effort to lock her up. If somehow Trump or Clinton did get sent up the river, would the Secret Service still protect them?

Yes. Barring an act of Congress, the responsibility of the Secret Service to protect a former president or first lady would not disappear because that person had been convicted of a crime. This has never happened, though, and any potential details of such an arrangement are mysterious even to Secret Service veterans and other experts on the agency. A spokesman for the Secret Service refused even to address the issue. “It’s a road we would have to go down if it ever happened,” he told the Explainer. “It’s not something we’re going to think about unless it happens.”

(The most recent time this came up, when Bill Clinton was facing criminal prosecution for perjury and obstruction of justice, the Explainer ignominiously punted on the question.)

A prison setting might be safe in some regards. An incarcerated former president or first lady wouldn’t have to worry too much about being kidnapped, for example, or blackmailed for information. But he or she would be at a heightened risk of violence. (Rapes and other assaults occur 15 to 30 times more often among prisoners than in the general population.) It’s possible the Secret Service would deploy a protective detail at the facility, with agents stationed in the cellblock, the prison yard, or otherwise in the vicinity of the VIP inmate.

In this scenario, agents wouldn’t have to be hanging out inside the former president or first lady’s cell—just close enough to keep an eye out. The situation might be analogous—loosely analogous—to how the Secret Service protects the president’s children while they’re in school.
While Calvin Coolidge’s son, John, went to Amherst College in 1926, a Secret Service agent lived in the same house as him and remained by his side throughout the day—except when John was in class or hanging out with his buddies during recreation periods. Agents guarding Julie Nixon when she was enrolled at Smith College maintained a post outside her dorm room overnight and then joined up with her when she went out. They also took their meals in the college mess hall. Secret service agents deployed at Stanford University on behalf of Chelsea Clinton dressed like students in order to fit in. (Would Secret Service agents guarding an incarcerated former president dress in prison blues? No one knows.)

Another option for the Secret Service would be to hand off its protective responsibilities to the Bureau of Prisons or appropriate state-level Department of Corrections. When Hillary Clinton joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet in 2009, the Secret Service turned over at least some of the work of protecting her to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. If a former president or first lady were locked up, the Secret Service might inspect the prison and its procedures to ensure everything was up to snuff, and then agree to let the warden handle things from there. Even then, the agency might choose to keep a modest presence in the prison, with an agent stationed in an administrative office, for example. It might also have a special plan for extracting the former president or first lady in case of prison riots.

It’s possible that Congress would pass a law that stripped the incarcerated former president or first lady of their protection. (Lawmakers have often tweaked the rules on who gets a Secret Service detail, and for how long. At the moment, former presidents get the perk for life, while their spouses lose it if they remarry.) A former president or first lady could also make the choice to forgo Secret Service protection. Pat Nixon asked for hers to be dropped in 1984; her husband followed suit in 1985.

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Explainer thanks Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, and Sonny Smith of Texas A&M University.