Fact-check: Does the shutdown raise real security concerns for State of the Union?

Posted at 7:47 PM, Jan 17, 2019

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi threw DC a curve ball when she sent President Donald Trump a letter suggesting the State of the Union address be rescheduled for when the partial government shutdown ends.

Initially, Pelosi cited "security concerns" due to the lapse in funding for the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security as her primary reason for the reschedule request.

That raised questions about whether the government shutdown would pose real security risks around the State of the Union, or whether this was simply a political move by Pelosi to tweak the President.

None of this is clear-cut, and the definition of what's secure and what's not depends on who you ask. Here's a look at the factors involved.

Who provides security at the SOTU?

In her letter to Trump, Pelosi referred to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen's designation of the State of the Union under the National Special Security Events (NSSEs). The NSSE is reserved for high-profile political events, such as presidential inaugurations, international summits and the State of the Union address.

The designation of the State of the Union under NSSEs means the Secret Service "becomes the lead federal agency in developing, exercising, and implementing security operations," according to a NSSE fact sheet from the Congressional Research Service.

What effect does the government shutdown have on the Secret Service?

According to DHS procedures, out of the Secret Service's 7,222 employees, an estimated 5,978 remain on the job during a government shutdown without pay. The procedure also states that employees who contribute to functions "necessary for safety of human life or protection of property" will be required to continue working during a shutdown.

Secret Service says it's ready

According to one law enforcement official, the Secret Service would be prepared to provide security for the State of the Union address even during a government shutdown. Most of the agency's employees are considered essential and have been working without pay for the past several weeks.

That has included most personnel responsible for planning security measures around the address, the official says. Meetings about the event have continued to take place during the shutdown. The official says security planning for the State of the Union began months ago, before the shutdown started.

Nielsen reiterated this in a tweet , stating that "the Department of Homeland Security and the US Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union."

Beyond the Secret Service

While the Secret Service takes the lead on the State of the Union, other agencies and law enforcement entities provide security as well, including the Capitol and Metro police forces.

A separate law enforcement source told CNN that because some of these other federal agencies -- including some closed by the shutdown -- are involved in the security process, it could be difficult to plan and execute due to the lapse in funding.

For instance, according to Nielsen's letter, NSSE events are co-chaired by the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those federal agencies would presumably fall under the "human life" exemption, meaning they'd be required to work without pay.

Juliette Kayyem, a DHS assistant secretary in the Obama administration and a CNN national security analyst, said the "personal challenges" associated with the lack of pay could impede an agent's ability. "So the body count may not change," she said, "but the performance does."

Metro PD (like other local and state police forces) is not affected by the government shutdown. The legislative branch budget, which includes funding for the Capitol Police, was signed into law by the President last September.

Pelosi changes tactics

When asked Thursday about the State of the Union, Pelosi shifted away from security concerns and focused on the lack of payment.

"It isn't a question of are they are professional enough ... the question is, they should be paid," she said. "And as the secretary of any agency, (Nielsen) should be advocating for her employees to be paid instead of saying it's OK for them to work without pay."

Does Trump have to go to the Capitol to give the speech?

No. For years, the president delivered the speech as a letter to Congress, and per the Constitution, both chambers have to invite the president to come. On Wednesday, Pelosi told reporters that Trump "can make (the address) from the Oval Office if he wants."

Can he?

Article II, Section 3, of the US Constitution states, in part, that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." It doesn't mandate the location or method of delivery for the address. Trump could deliver the address in a letter (which past presidents have done), from the Oval Office or wherever he wants.