Privacy SOS

Secret Service asks neighbors about political activist who protested Trump

Last weekend, we learned that Donald Trump’s large family and frequent travel are bankrupting the Secret Service. USA Today reports that about 130 of the thousands of agents who work long hours protecting the president and his family likely won’t get paid for some of the hundreds of overtime hours they’ve worked since Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. Investigative journalist Christina Wilkie, meanwhile, reports that Secret Service sources say they are tired of being treated like servants by Trump. According to Wilkie’s sources in the agency, the Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas were all cordial and respectful, and the Trump family is not. 

Nevertheless, some Secret Service agents went overboard in interrogating and investigating a woman who engaged in non-violent, symbolic political protest at Trump Tower in New York. 

Writing for the Washington Post, seasoned political operator and activist Melissa Byrne describes how she and some friends dropped a banner inside Trump Tower on a day when they knew President Trump would be in the building:

Like every good political operative — I worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 campaign and then the MoveOn super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign — I run on coffee. Conveniently, the Starbucks inside Trump Tower is located on the second floor and overlooks an atrium — exactly where I’d want to hang the banner. I sipped a flat white and waited for the right moment, when uniformed NYPD wouldn’t be nearby. Then I unfurled the banner. A security officer grabbed it almost immediately. I ended up on the ground.

Since Starbucks is a public place and I was a paying guest, I knew I hadn’t violated any laws. At worst, I could be banned from the building. I expected from past protest actions that I’d be given a warning and a request to leave. I clearly and politely explained to the NYPD officers who detained me that the protest was done and I was heading out.

They had other ideas.

Not only did the Secret Service and NYPD officers ask inappropriate questions about Byrne’s political views and mental health; they told she may be detained for a longer period of time if she sought a lawyer, and an NYPD officer threatened her with felony charges. Then the Secret Service agent pressed her to sign a waiver allowing them access to her medical records. Even worse, when she returned to her home in Philly she discovered agents had been asking her neighbors about her. As Byrne writes, this isn’t ok: “I was treated as a national security threat when all I’d done was exercise my First Amendment right to free expression. This isn’t normal, and it shouldn’t be how nonviolent protesters are treated by armed agents of the government.”

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.