A new book delves into the workings of the Secret Service and the flawed presidents they protect — though a spokesperson said in response: "The agency's skilled workforce is dedicated to the successful execution of its critical protective and investigative missions"

By Sam Gillette
May 28, 2021 05:17 PM
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Secret Service snipers watch on a rooftop as President Barack Obama speaks
Secret Service snipers watch over President Barack Obama
| Credit: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

In March 2014, President Barack Obama was informed that, less than two days before he was scheduled to arrive at a hotel in the Netherlands, a Secret Service agent was discovered passed out in the hallway.

Apparently, the drunk 34-year-old man was unable to open his door and collapsed. The agency's director, Julia Pierson, informed Obama of the incident and explained that the man and his two drinking companions had been shipped back to the U.S.

According to the new book Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig, which recounts this scene, the president then "began sternly listing, in methodical order, every ugly Secret Service headline since his inauguration."

"And these are just the screw-ups that happened during my administration," Obama said, according to the book. "This is a Secret Service problem, not a President Obama problem."

The president "controlled his temper, but she [Pierson] could feel it in the room," the author continues.

"You know what?" Obama told Pierson, Leonnig writes. "The problem with the Secret Service is you don't have enough women in the Secret Service."

"I'm working on it," the director replied.

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service
Credit: Random House
US President Richard Nixon in Berlin
President Richard Nixon (center) visits Berlin.
| Credit: Wolfgang Kunz/ullstein bild via Getty Images

It was a trying time for the agency — not the first and not the last. Two years before, the Secret Service had caused an international embarrassment when 12 agents and officers partied and legally hired prostitutes, "Mad Men-style," during Obama's official visit to Colombia, later dubbed "Hookergate."

There were multiple incidents during Obama's administration, while an alarming number of security breaches led to Pierson's resignation in October 2014. (Such failures came as Obama, who made history as the first Black president, "received four times as many death threats as his predecessors—as many as thirty a day," according to the book.)

"Hookergate" was the impetus behind Zero Fail, which provides a deeply-reported portrait of the Secret Service's decades-long mandate to protect American presidents — and its struggles doing so.

Leonnig writes that her book is based on "hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 180 people," including former and current members of the Secret Service and members of the eight previous administrations, many of them anonymous.

Her book also gives insights into the private lives of presidents and their families, from John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump — including scenes and memories reinforcing longtime reporting about their flaws, strengths and charms (or lack thereof).

One headline even before the book's release was Leonnig's reporting that Tiffany and Vanessa Trump, President Trump's youngest daughter and former daughter-in-law, got "inappropriately — and perhaps dangerously — close" to members of their security detail while he was in office. (Tiffany denied this.)

In response to Leonnig's reporting, a Secret Service spokesperson told PEOPLE earlier this month: "The U.S. Secret Service is aware of an upcoming book which re-hashes past challenges the agency overcame and evolved from. Now and throughout its 156 year history, the agency's skilled workforce is dedicated to the successful execution of its critical protective and investigative missions."

Keep reading for more highlights from Zero Fail.

A 'Reckless' President with an 'Insatiable Appetite'

President and Mrs. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy
| Credit: Bettmann Archive

President Kennedy's history of extramarital affairs is well known, but Leonnig delves further — describing how his "insatiable appetite" made the Secret Service worried for his safety. According to conversations Leonnig had with some of Kennedy's former detail, the president would sometimes sneak away from his agents by going incognito and slipping into an unmarked car.

"For several hours, the Secret Service didn't know where the president of the United States was," Leonnig writes. "Kennedy courted this sort of danger, trying to feed a seemingly insatiable appetite for sexual conquest, but members of his details feared that within the sea of random women he met for trysts, one would try to blackmail, poison, or kill him."

The president's wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, was also aware of his womanizing ways.

"There were many senators and people who worked for the president who were really well aware of the conversations that Jackie had with JFK, in which she made it really clear that she knew what was going on," author J. Randy Taraborrelli told PEOPLE in 2018, following the publication of his book, Jackie, Janet and Lee. "She wasn't naïve to it. They did have many conversations about it, and she did tell him that she was sick of it and she didn't like it."

Tim McIntyre saw a parade of the president's lovers after he joined the agency in the summer of 1963. He and the other agents, normally tasked with questioning the background of anyone who came in close range of the president, "weren't allowed to so much as ask the women's names," according to Zero Fail.

The agents may not have known the women's names, but they still gave a short report about who was in the president's room when the next agent reported for the night shift at 10 p.m.

"You wanted to tell the midnight shift the situation," a former agent tells Leonnig in Zero Fail. "The point of it was, if [the woman] didn't come out by about 4 a.m., you were going to start to worry."

But it wasn't a woman who ended up killing Kennedy. In her book, Leonnig also writes of the problems surrounding his security detail when he was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in November 1963 in Dallas.

A Near-Death Experience

Secret Service Agents Riding Car
Secret Service agents
| Credit: Bettmann Archive

There were many presidential assassinations plots over the decades, many of which Leonnig reports were mishandled by the Secret Service.

In March 1981, for example, a mentally ill man shot at President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., in the hopes of winning the love of actress Jodie Foster. Reagan was hit in the left lung, but survived; his press secretary, James Brady, later died of his injuries.

Leonnig describes not just the shooting in step-by-step detail but also the longstanding effects the violence had on both Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. From then on, the president always donned a bulletproof vest without complaint, as he had promised a Secret Service agent in the hospital. And his wife became fixated on astrology in order to gauge the president's risk level when he left the White House, even going so far to adjust his schedule based on the readings. (Mrs. Reagan defended her use of astrology in her memoir.)

"If it makes you fell better, go ahead and do it," President Reagan told her of the practice, according to the book. "But be careful. It might look a little odd if it ever came out."

A 'Culture Clash'

President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush treated their Secret Service detail like family, Leonnig writes. Not so with their successors, the Clintons.

Leonnig explains that, when President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton arrived at the White House in 1993, there was an immediate "culture clash." The future senator and secretary of state was no cookie-baking political spouse — and would become "the Secret Service's least popular First Lady on record," according to the book.

"The former First Lady [Barbara Bush] had treated her agents like extended family, inviting their wives and children to the family's home for barbecues and swimming," Leonnig writes. "The new First Lady chided and cursed her husband in private ... The dismissive way she treated agents made them quietly seethe."

Agents were "shocked by her foul mouth and dual personality," Leonnig continues. But Cheryl Montgomery, one of the few Black female Secret Service agents at the time, told Leonnig that the male agents were biased against Mrs. Clinton from the beginning.

President Clinton, surrounded by Secret Service agents
President Bill Clinton (center) running with his security detail.
| Credit: Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
President George W. Bush greets soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York
President George W. Bush (left) greets soldiers in New York.
| Credit: Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

"Montgomery saw the First Lady as a sharp thinker who spoke to her husband as an equal and 'was just trying to help him,' " Leonnig writes. Both Clintons were also worried that the Secret Service was loyal to the Bush family and were leaking information to the press, according to the book.

Some conservative agents came to "enjoy, even admire" President Clinton's personality, despite their political differences. But many agents were also witness to his extramarital affairs — a situation not unlike that of the Kennedys. Leonnig writes that the president would pretend to go to the gym to workout. Instead, he would have a tryst while the agents stood by. Afterward, he splashed water on his face to make it look like he was sweating.

"I don't know how many times President Clinton would say, 'I want to make an off-the-record movement tonight,' " a retired senior agent from the Clinton years told Leonnig. "He'd go visit so-and-so. We all knew why."

The 'Chaos Candidate'

A body guard stands in front of US President Donald Trump's car
A body guard in front of President Donald Trump's car
| Credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

When Donald Trump was on the presidential campaign trail in 2015, his rallies were so volatile that some agents nicknamed him the "chaos candidate," according to Zero Fail. The danger-level at the appearances alarmed them.

"This general trajectory of Trump's campaign events—the candidate drawing crowds full of vitriol, and righteous supporters both armed and ready to rumble with mocking dissenters—was deeply concerning," Leonnig writes. "Detail agents asked that barriers used to hold back spectators be pushed an additional six to ten feet back from the stage, to give them some more time to surround and shield the candidate if someone rushed them."

Trump also often ridiculed those in his administration — including those in his and First Lady Melania Trump's security detail. Leonnig writes that he twice complained about Mindy O'Donnell to get her removed from her position as the lead agent of Mrs. Trump's security detail.

Specifically, according to Leonnig, he "was bothered by the chunky heels she wore on the job."

"She's too short," the president told advisers, according to the book. "How do you run in heels?"

President Trump also had concerns about some Secret Service agents being too overweight for the job, although he may have been confusing office staff with his government security.

"I want these fat guys off my detail," he allegedly said, according to Zero Fail. "How are they going to protect me and my family if they can't run down the street?"

In March 2017, the president's tone was even more cutting. On the way back from an event, his 8-year-old grandson had fallen asleep in his detail's sport utility vehicle only to wake up to see one of the two agents apparently taking selfies with him, according to the book.

"I don't like those guys. They were taking pictures of me," the boy told his mom, Vanessa, who was "stunned" and sought to comfort her son, while also asking him questions to make sure nothing else had happened, according to Leonnig. She told her husband, Donald Trump Jr., who was also concerned. They called a lead Secret Service supervisor, who ordered an investigation. The agents were immediately reassigned.

The head of the president's detail, Mike White, then had to share the "embarrassing news" with the commander-in-chief. President Trump "sat in his chair behind the desk, slack-jawed," according to Zero Fail. He had White repeat the scenario again.

"Trump asked a question to be sure he understood. These guys weren't pervs, right?" Leonnig writes. "No, White assured him. They were just being idiots."

"Trump shook his head in disbelief," she continues. "Then he stared back at White, squinting. 'What the f--- is wrong with you guys?' "

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service is on sale now.