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Former Secret Service Agent Considers Likely Responses To Trump Comments

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When a presidential candidate says something that can be interpreted as a call to shoot another presidential candidate, what does the Secret Service do about it? We're about to put that question to a former Secret Service agent.

As a reminder, Donald Trump was talking to supporters yesterday in Wilmington, N.C., and he said, as he has many times before, that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment. Incidentally she has not said that, and no president or court has the power to abolish a constitutional amendment. Anyway, Trump went on to say this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks, although the Second Amendment people - maybe there is. I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Trump later tweeted that he meant that pro-Second-Amendment citizens must organize and get out the vote. The Secret Service tweeted, quote, "the Secret Service is aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon."

Jonathan Wackrow was a Secret Service agent for more than a decade until just two years ago, and he joins us now. Welcome.

JONATHAN WACKROW: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Well, how do you interpret that tweet, "the Secret Service is aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon"?

WACKROW: Well, you know, the Secret Service is in a very unique position right now where they had to acknowledge that there's something going on. They provide protection to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in this campaign cycle. So you know, there was language out there that can be interpreted as threatening language, so the Secret Service has to get in front of that to deal with any potential threats that statements by Donald Trump pose.

SHAPIRO: OK, so if somebody other than a presidential candidate, if just a typical U.S. citizen had made a public statement using those words, what would the reaction from the Secret Service typically be?

WACKROW: You know, there's a couple sides to this. The first thing is a legal side, and what we look towards is the Statute 18 USC 879. It sets the legal structure for anybody who willfully and knowingly makes a threat of physical harm towards a Secret Service protectee, whether that's a presidential candidate, the president, vice president or anybody under the Secret Service protection.

And so in this case, you pivot back to Donald Trump. Did he willfully or knowingly make a direct threat to cause harm towards Hillary Clinton? So the answer is no, he didn't. So with the Secret Service, we look at three elements of a threat. We look at the means, the opportunity and the intent to cause harm. What was Donald Trump's intent?

The Secret Service has to look at the lowest common denominator of a populace. And a lot of times it's in that messaging people with mental or psychological deficiencies are going to convey the messaging by the candidate maybe differently. The Secret Service has to be concerned with, is anyone to act upon it?

SHAPIRO: Would the Secret Service ever take the step of saying to Donald Trump or anyone else who makes a comment like that, whatever you intended by this remark, it has the potential to create problems for us, so please don't?

WACKROW: Absolutely. I mean there's almost a duty of care here by the Secret Service. You know, they have to insure the totality of the circumstance is understood by all parties involved. They'll advise both the Trump and Clinton campaigns that their words are powerful, and we can't have that type of language misconstrued.

Any threats that come in now have to be looked at with a different optic. Were threats that are being made today in the short term future - are they linked back to Donald Trump's statements? That takes a tremendous amount of resources, especially in this campaign cycle because threats aren't just coming in through telephone calls or letters.

The utilization of social media to make anonymous threats is unprecedented during this campaign season. We didn't see that in '08. We didn't see it in 2012, but we're seeing social media threats almost on a daily basis received by the Secret Service for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever heard of a situation where a person who is receiving Secret Service protection says something that leads the Secret Service to have to take steps to intercept potential threats against someone else receiving Secret Service protection?

WACKROW: No. I mean - and just by the struggle in asking that question shows the uniqueness of this situation. The moment after Donald Trump made that statement, you could hear just the big sighs coming out of headquarters of the Secret Service. I mean Joe Clancy, the director, with all the things that he's trying to do to manage his organization and bring his organization out of a shadow of a dark period - let's say that - with some of the history that's gone on in the Secret Service in the news...

SHAPIRO: Right. There have been a number of scandals, as people recall, yes.

WACKROW: Exactly. But now he has to deal with this. Now he has to insert himself into the political process somehow. He has to play pass interference between the Republican and the Democratic nominee for the office of the president of the United States. I can't even imagine what's going through Director Clancy's mind right now.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Wackrow, thank you very much.

WACKROW: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Wackrow served as a Secret Service agent from 2001 to 2014, including on the presidential detail, and he's now an executive director for the risk management company Rain Corporation.

And CNN reports that a Secret Service official confirmed to the network that the Secret Service talked with the Trump campaign about his comments on the Second Amendment and that in fact there has been more than one conversation. Donald Trump responded to that report with a tweet saying no such meeting or conversation ever happened. NPR is working on its own confirmation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.