Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination against President Joe Biden, baselessly suggested Friday that the Biden administration is singling him out for rare treatment by denying him Secret Service protection.
Kennedy tweeted that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had decided that Secret Service protection for him is “not warranted at this time.” Kennedy said this denial came after nearly three months with no response to his campaign’s request for Secret Service protection and despite his campaign having submitted a 67-page report “from the world’s leading protection firm, detailing unique and well established security and safety risks aside from commonplace death threats.”
CNN has no reason to dispute any of that; the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on Kennedy’s tweet, which had received more than 12 million views as of Friday afternoon. But Kennedy began the tweet as follows: “Since the assassination of my father in 1968, candidates for president are provided Secret Service protection. But not me.”
That is highly misleading.
Facts First: Kennedy’s suggestion that he is being treated differently than every other presidential candidate since 1968 is baseless. In reality, the vast majority of candidates in modern presidential primaries never receive Secret Service protection because they are not deemed “major” candidates – and it would be nearly unprecedented for even a major candidate to receive protection this early in a campaign if they did not already have it on account of currently or previously serving in the White House. A CNN review of presidential campaigns dating back to 1980 found that only then-Senator Barack Obama, who faced unique threats as a Black man with a realistic chance to become president, was granted Secret Service protection as early in a campaign as Kennedy is seeking it.
“We’re too far out from the election,” and Kennedy “just doesn’t meet the criteria,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former Secret Service agent. “He’s not a major presidential candidate. You can make as many requests as you want; unless you meet that criteria that have been set forth, it’s just not warranted.”
Kennedy is entitled to argue that he should be given special treatment because of his family’s history. His father, the senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968, and his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963. When another uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, was considering a 1980 presidential run, President Jimmy Carter preemptively granted him Secret Service protection before he even launched his campaign.
But that was the exception, not the rule; Carter’s decision came in September 1979, later in the campaign cycle than we are today in the 2024 cycle; and the junior Kennedy is inaccurately insinuating that being denied protection at this point amounts to differential treatment.
In response to CNN’s request for comment for this fact check, Kennedy campaign manager Dennis Kucinich called our assessment of the tweet “pretty ignorant” and argued that we have been unable to understand the trauma inflicted on the nation by the Kennedy assassinations of the 1960s. He also noted that Obama did have Secret Service protection at this point in the campaign.
What federal law and guidelines say
Federal law authorizes Secret Service protection for “major” presidential and vice presidential candidates. The law says it’s up to the secretary of Homeland Security, after consulting with a bipartisan committee of House and Senate leaders, to decide who counts as a “major” candidate. The Obama administration laid out a non-exhaustive list of criteria in 2017 to help determine who should be bestowed “major” status.
The criteria include being the formal or de facto nominee of a major party (Kennedy is a distant longshot to beat Biden for the Democratic nomination); the candidate polling at 15% or higher for 30 consecutive days in the RealClearPolitics average or a similar system (Kennedy was above 15% in the RealClearPolitics average in May and much of June but has been below 15% every day since June 22 and was at 13.7% on Friday – about 50 points behind Biden); the Secret Service having conducted an assessment of threats to harm the candidate (it is not clear what specific threats Kennedy has faced or whether a Secret Service assessment has occurred); and operating a national campaign with such features as a national campaign “apparatus,” regular appearances in multiple states, and publishing ads of some kind (it is not clear how big Kennedy’s campaign apparatus is; he has made appearances in various states; the tracking firm AdImpact told CNN Friday that it has not yet seen any spending from Kennedy’s campaign on ads for television, radio, Facebook or Google, though it is possible he has published some other kind of ad).
When previous presidential candidates got Secret Service protection
The Homeland Security secretary is allowed to offer a candidate Secret Service protection even if they fail to meet any of the specific criteria. But the historical record shows that it would be highly unusual for a candidate to be given protection at this point in the campaign cycle, more than 15 months before Election Day.
Starting with the 1980 campaign (as far back as CNN could quickly find details on Friday), Obama was the only presidential candidate to be newly granted Secret Service protection this far from Election Day or earlier. Almost all of the presidential nominees, including Biden in 2020, did not have their protection begin until less than a year before Election Day, contemporaneous news reports show.
2020: Biden received Secret Service protection in March 2020, less than eight months before Election Day; he was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination at the time. (Biden’s protection from having served as vice president had expired in mid-2017.) Republican nominee Donald Trump already had protection in 2020 because he was president.
2016: Trump received Secret Service protection in November 2015, less than a year before Election Day, when he was the clear Republican front-runner. Republican rival Ben Carson, a Black man who had placed first or second in multiple polls that fall, also got protection in November 2015.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton already had protection because she had been first lady. Her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, got protection in February 2016, about nine months before Election Day.
2012: Obama already had protection because he was president. Republican candidate Herman Cain, a Black man, received protection in November 2011, less than a year before Election Day, reportedly because he had received threats. Competitive Republican candidates Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and eventual nominee Mitt Romney all received protection in February 2012 or March 2012 – well under 10 months before Election Day in each case.
2008: Democratic candidate Clinton already had protection because she had been first lady. Obama, the eventual Democratic nominee, received protection in May 2007, about 18 months before Election Day, the earliest any candidate had received it. Republican nominee John McCain received protection late, less than seven months before Election Day, after resisting it for months.
2004: Republican nominee George W. Bush already had protection because he was president. Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry received protection in February 2004, less than nine months before Election Day, when he was the front-runner for the nomination. His leading rival, Sen. John Edwards, was authorized for protection around the same time.
2000: Democratic nominee Al Gore already had protection because he was vice president. Bush accepted it in March 2000, less than eight months before Election Day, after clinching the Republican nomination.
1996: Democratic nominee Bill Clinton already had protection because he was president. After resisting, Republican nominee Bob Dole accepted it in March 1996, less than eight months before Election Day, after he had clinched the nomination. Another Republican candidate, Pat Buchanan, had received protection in February 1996 after winning the New Hampshire primary.
1992: Republican nominee George H.W. Bush already had protection because he was president. Clinton received protection in February 1992, just under nine months before Election Day.
1988: Republican nominee George H.W. Bush already had protection because he was vice president. Republican candidate Pat Robertson got it in December 1987, less than a year before Election Day, after citing potential threats; Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson, a Black man who had received threats, was granted protection in November 1987. Other Democratic candidates got protection in January 1988, and nominee Michael Dukakis finally accepted it in May 1988 after resisting.
1984: Republican nominee Ronald Reagan already had protection because he was president. Eventual Democratic nominee Walter Mondale received it in January 1984, less than 10 months prior to Election Day, along with some other candidates in the primary; Jackson had received it in November 1983, less than a year before Election Day.
1980: Democratic nominee Carter already had protection because he was president. Eventual Republican nominee Reagan and other candidates in that primary got protection in January 1980, less than 10 months before Election Day. (As we mentioned above, Carter granted Democratic rival Ted Kennedy preemptive protection in September 1979.)