Members Only | August 16, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
‘Lost’ Secret Service texts are part of Trump’s rolling coup
The ongoing dismantling of the democratic state.
On January 6, 2021, armed MAGA supporters swarmed the US Capitol in a bid to stop the electoral count that would transfer the presidency to Joe Biden. Secret Service agents, who were detailed to protect Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, stayed in touch with each other, and with their supervisors, by cell phone.
Like everyone else that day, they were sending text messages.
But as with so many government documents generated by the Trump administration, the public – and the House select committee to investigate the J6 insurrection – will probably never see them.
The data migration that reportedly erased the Secret Service texts occurred on January 27, 2021, two days after the House forwarded articles of impeachment to the Senate, accusing the former president of inciting the attack on the Capitol, and one day after Trump was issued a summons notifying him to prepare for trial.
Joseph Cuffari, the Trump-appointed Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the Secret Service, doesn’t want to talk about those missing text messages.
On January 27, 2021, Congress told all departments to preserve their records. When subordinates at DHS reported to Cuffari’s chief of staff in April, 2022 – 15 months after a search was initiated – to say that the texts had been permanently deleted in a data migration, that memo was never seen again. Congress was finally informed by a July 14 report saying that these documents may be permanently lost.
Was it a coincidence?
Of course, we cannot know what these texts would or would not add to our understanding of a former president’s rolling coup attempt.
But it isn’t hard to imagine that an even marginally competent IT professional would have routinely backed up devices prior to such a migration. Nor is it too much to expect that the loss of these texts should have been reported, particularly since multiple House committees issued directives for the preservation on January 16, 2021 – eleven days before the alleged data migration took place.
Why? Because records requests now routinely include phone data. These devices report not only what we communicate, but when, and from where, those communications were sent. Digital communications provide a dense, real-time record. And computerized devices don’t do things by accident, or without warning. Permanently deleting such evidence requires either extreme premeditation or extreme negligence.
Text messages speak to witnesses’ state of mind, and decisions made in the moment. Think of the ones we do have: panicked texts from MAGA pundits like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, or the numerous Facebook posts by Stop the Steal activists, have helped tell a vivid story about January 6 that are seared in our memories.
On July 21, we learned the poignant fact that Pence’s Secret Service detail, trapped and hearing the crowd’s chanted death threats, used their cell phones to call their loved ones to say goodbye.
The missing Secret Service texts were important historical documents, but they might also corroborate testimony by Trump and Pence aides about what their bosses did, and said, on J6.
Curiously, however, the data migration that reportedly erased the Secret Service texts from that day occurred on January 27, 2021, two days after the House of Representatives forwarded articles of impeachment to the Senate, accusing the former president of inciting the attack on the Capitol, and one day after Trump was issued a summons notifying him to prepare for trial.
A coincidence? You decide.
Incompetence or malice?
But let’s be clear: Cuffari’s first move on J6, even without a request from Congress, should have been preserving the records of all DHS personnel on duty at the Ellipse, the Capitol and the Oval Office.
There were 24 Secret Service agents engaged that day, 10 guarding then-President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Their phones should have been secured as soon as they went off duty. Although the messages they held might have also documented these agents’ valor, Cuffari’s job is to anticipate problems and mistakes.
Inspectors general are supposed to proactively investigate for failure, sometimes identifying a conflict of interest before a legal violation has occurred. That’s why they are nicknamed “watchdogs.”
Instead, Cuffari has been Trump’s fox and DHS his hen house.
He had already refused staff recommendations to investigate potentially improper conduct by the Secret Service and the Border Patrol, in 2021. So the Counsel of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an interagency group that oversees inspectors general, launched an investigation into Cuffari’s unwillingness to do his job. On August 12, Republican senators, led by Missouri’s Josh Hawley, announced that they want that investigation to end.
This points us to a much larger pattern in Trump nominees, from Cabinet-level to administrative jobs: filling important positions with candidates whose history suggested they would dismantle, or disable, the government agency they were appointed to run.
For example, after almost 30 years of enhanced federal intervention in education, a Republican-led Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of defunding public schools through voucher programs, as the secretary of education.
Health and Human Services Secretaries Tom Price and Alex Azar, both of whom became the focus of unrelated scandals, were tasked with reducing government-funded healthcare by weakening administrative provisions of Obamacare.
Surgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson retracted Obama-era policies designed to help poor renters and that required suburban districts to track enforcement of racial equity in housing.
Hyper-partisanship at the top is partially offset by nonpartisan civil service employees, tens of thousands of workers, protected by federal law, that remain in place regardless of the party in power.
Yet Republicans have a plan for them too: Should Trump be reelected in 2024, he will come in armed with a plan, which he implemented in late 2020 and Joe Biden rescinded, to target 50,000 civil service workers for dismissal and replacement with party loyalists.
The fight goes on
It would be a mistake to think that Donald Trump’s power grab has been fully defeated, or that the story of the missing Secret Service text messages is only about one Trump partisan’s misplaced loyalty to a defeated president. Cuffari’s refusal to do his job is yet another chapter in the attack on the foundation of our democratic state.
The coup is not over.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.