Secret Service prepares for security challenges at conventions

WASHINGTON — The contentious and sometimes ferocious 2016 presidential campaign is coming to a head at the party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, and the Secret Service is preparing for the very real prospect that they may be marred by violence.

The agency, according to its own statistics, has staffed more than 1,200 campaign events since November 2015. More than 2.5 million people have passed through magnetometers, and the head of the Secret Service has been wary.

“Each of these events has the potential for something to go awry,” Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy told WTOP in an exclusive interview.

“We saw that in Dayton, Ohio, where an individual jumped over a bike rack and Secret Service personnel behind the stage reacted and immediately stopped him within 30 seconds.”

According to documents from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, on March 12, 32-year-old Thomas Dimassimo “Knowingly enter[ed] and remain[ed] in a restricted building and on grounds at Wright Bros. Aero, 3700 McCauley Drive, Vandalia, Ohio, which was then a posted, cordoned off and otherwise restricted area where a person protected by the Secret Service was temporarily visiting, without lawful authority to do so.”

He was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors. But there have been more ominous developments during the campaign.

On May 17, during a stop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders revealed that his campaign had been targeted by violence.

“When we speak of violence, I should add here that, months ago, during the Nevada campaign, shots were fired into my campaign office in Nevada and an apartment housing complex my campaign staff lived in was broken into and ransacked,” Sanders said.

But the most serious moment occurred on June 18 in Las Vegas, at a rally for Donald Trump inside the Mystere Theatre in the Treasure Island Casino.

“An individual attempted to remove a weapon from one of the officers working the event,” Clancy said.

Michael Steven Sandford, according to court documents from the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, “attempted to engage in an act of physical violence against Donald J. Trump” by “attempting to seize a firearm from a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer.”

According the documents, Sandford, a United Kingdom citizen who was 19 at the time, said he sought to seize the weapon “to shoot and kill Trump.”

“We often say you have to be ready every hour of every day and every minute of every hour, and this is a good example of that. You never know what may develop in a very short period of time,” Clancy said.

That theory likely will be tested at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, because groups with well-publicized antipathy for each other are expected to be on hand at each.

It’s of particular concern in Ohio, where legal owners of handguns can carry them into the relatively small perimeter (about 2 miles) encompassing the Republican convention.

Clancy has personally scouted the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and the Wells Fargo Center and Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.

“I did a walk-through in Philadelphia and met with our field office personnel and our coordinator down there to make sure there were no issues. We’re still working on things as we get closer to the convention,” Clancy said.

He also met with local police, Secret Service personnel and the mayor in Cleveland.

Clancy said he had three primary areas of interest during his walk-throughs: “I want to see how the flow of people will be brought into these arenas; what is the secure zone going look like and how does it impact businesses?” 

Cleveland may pose something of a challenge, Clancy said: “It’s a little different landscape” because there are businesses very close to the secure areas near the arena.

Clancy did not mention it, but sources tell WTOP the open carry law and intensity between protesters of different stripes is a concern in Cleveland during the convention.

Another concern is fallout from the anger simmering across the U.S. because of recent police killings of African-Americans and the targeted killing of five Dallas police officers on July 7. There is palpable worry that law enforcement officers may be targeted in either or both cities hosting the conventions.

Clancy said it’s up to the Secret Service and its partners to be ready for whatever comes their way.

“You’ve got be ready to go much like a pinch hitter in baseball. You may sit down on the bench five games in a row, but when you get called to step up to the plate everyone, on the team is expecting you to perform,” Clancy said.

Target USA is a weekly podcast produced by WTOP National Security Correspondent JJ Green. The podcast can be downloaded on, Podcast One and iTunes.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up