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Secret Service Agents Worry About Risk Of Contracting The Coronavirus

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President Trump says he feels great. And he suggested that he may go to Miami next week to debate Joe Biden, even though experts say there's a chance he could still be contagious. That is concerning for those who have little choice but to be near him when he travels - his Secret Service protective detail. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Secret Service agents don't generally talk to reporters about their work for obvious reasons. But in private, there's plenty of grumbling.

JJ HENSLEY: I think there is a lot of frustration. Let's just put it that way (laughter).

KASTE: J.J. Hensley used to be a Secret Service agent protecting VIPs and presidential candidates. He's still in touch with his colleagues, and he says it's been a tough campaign season for them.

HENSLEY: Agents are already worrying about guns and knives and bombs, and now they have to worry about COVID-19.

KASTE: Agents accept that risk is part of their job, but Hensley says they're unhappy with all the unnecessary risks involving coronavirus - indoor campaign events, crowds without masks. And then on Sunday, there was that video - President Trump taking a ride outside the hospital to wave at his supporters. Inside the sealed SUV with the presumably contagious president were at least two agents.

HENSLEY: Like most of America, I was just shocked, thinking why? (Laughter) It's an unnecessary move. It's preventable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MEADOWS: A number of folks are trying to just make a big deal of that.

KASTE: That's the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows talking to Fox News yesterday and pushing back against the suggestions that Trump had unnecessarily endangered his protective detail inside that SUV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEADOWS: The Secret Service agent that is with him has been with him. He's been with him in cars. And yet, we took additional precautions with PPE and others to make sure that they were protected.

KASTE: Traditionally, the leader of the protective detail has the kind of relationship with the president that allows him to weigh in on a proposed outing or even advise against it if the risk seems unacceptable. That's according to another retired Secret Service agent who spoke to NPR anonymously out of concern for retribution. The agent, a former supervisor who protected another president, says, quote, "I am sure that agent was asked his comfort level before a decision was made." But lower-ranking agents have less say. When it comes to, say, the SUV's driver, the retired supervisor says, quote, "they're not the one having the chat with the president. They're the one that's assigned to the shift that day that's driving cars," unquote. J.J. Hensley says that was his experience too when he was an agent.

HENSLEY: You're kind of at the will of whoever you're protecting, so sometimes, it can be a bit of an adventure.

KASTE: Such as the European dignitaries that he once drove through New York who chain-smoked the whole time, even though the windows were shut for security - but that was just smoke.

HENSLEY: With what we've seen over the last few days, this takes it to extremes.

KASTE: The retired agents say it's these lower-ranking agents that they're worried about now, the drivers and the people from the field offices who help with trips and campaign stops and fundraisers. The Secret Service won't comment, aside from a statement saying that it's following CDC protocols. And it won't release the number of agents who've tested positive for COVID for, quote, "privacy and operational security reasons."

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNSQUABI'S "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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