How the government decides when (and which) presidential candidates get Secret Service

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he has been denied Secret Service protection and is casting the decision as an outrage. But there’s a lot more that goes into getting a protective detail than just asking for it — and Kennedy falls short on much of the Secret Service’s public criteria.

Secret Service protection has been extended to candidates for president — and not just presidents themselves — since a law was enacted in 1968, following the assassination of Kennedy’s father during his presidential campaign. According to Secret Service guidance published for the 2020 election, “major presidential and vice presidential candidates” are “eligible” for protection.

But the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has wide latitude to decide who qualifies and why, after consultation with an advisory committee. The committee is comprised of high-level members of the government including the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader, the Senate minority leader and one additional member chosen by the committee. 

The Secret Service laid out a number of other factors explaining why not every declared presidential candidate gets a Secret Service detail and what goes into making that decision. The 2020 guidance lists polling thresholds for primary candidates or third-party general election nominees. And it also says the decision could be guided by a specific assessment of threats against that candidate.

Then-candidate Donald Trump received Secret Service protection almost one year prior to the 2016 general election, after being approved in 2015, along with fellow GOP contender Ben Carson, in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. In 2020, now-President Joe Biden said that candidates should receive protection earlier than normal, after a protester rushed the stage at an event and his wife ran toward them in defense of her husband.

Like Biden in 2020, Mike Pence once had Secret Service protection as vice president but doesn’t have it currently on the campaign trail, nor has he requested it as of now, according to his campaign. Federal law states that vice presidents lose their Secret Service protection six months after leaving office.

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