If a U.S. President Goes to Prison, Does the Secret Service Go, Too?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Donald Trump, Trump Tower, secret service
Donald Trump (accompanied by Secret Service personnel) arrives at Trump Tower April 13, 2023, in Manhattan, following a deposition at the office of the New York Attorney General Letitia James. Trump was being deposed over allegations the Trump Organization falsified financial statements in order to obtain loans. He also faces felony charges related to his alleged role in a hush money scheme. Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Under current United States federal law, all former presidents are entitled to lifetime protection from the Secret Service. Barring an act of Congress or a presidential executive order, the Secret Service is bound by law to protect former presidents for life. There aren't any exceptions listed in the statute governing the protection of former presidents.

The only legal reason currently for abandoning protection would be if a former president waived his right to his Secret Service detail, which only one former president has ever done. Richard Nixon waived his Secret Service protection 11 years after leaving office in disgrace following the Watergate scandal. (Nixon decided to pay for his own protection to save the U.S. government some money.)


But now, former president Donald Trump has been indicted on multiple felony charges related to misstating the purpose of a payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels. (This can be considered a felony if it is done to hide another crime.) With that indictment, Trump became the first U.S. president, sitting or former, to face criminal prosecution. Few legal experts expect Trump to receive a prison sentence if convicted, but it remains a possibility.

Trump could face more serious charges, however, if he's indicted by grand juries investigating him in separate criminal probes in Fulton County in Atlanta related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. related to the classified documents at found at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's home. Those charges, which could include obstruction of justice, typically include prison time if convicted.


The Secret Service Goes With the President

Trump's unprecedented arrest in New York has left many wondering if the Secret Service would accompany Trump (or any other convicted former president) to prison.

"Yes, no question," says Ronald Kessler, author of two books about the Secret Service: "In the President's Secret Service" and "The First Family Detail." "There wouldn't be a Secret Service agent inside his cell, but I expect that there would be two agents outside of his cell, two agents in the corridor leading up to the cell block and another two agents at the entrance to the prison."


Other commentators, including a former Secret Service agent, have said that as few as two Secret Service agents could be posted at the prison, but Kessler calls that "crazy."

"Just think it through," he says. "What would just two agents do in such a dangerous environment?"

Kessler estimates that Trump's current Secret Security detail consists of as many as 30 total Secret Service officers with only 10 or 12 agents on duty at any given time.

But would there be any special accommodation for an incarcerated former commander in chief?

"[The prison] would have to serve him meals in his cell. He couldn't be with the general population," says Kessler. "That's the only accommodation. He wouldn't be given any special treatment. He wouldn't be given a telephone for example. It would just be pure protection."

But protection is nothing to be sneezed at — especially in prison.


History of the Secret Service

The Secret Service was formed in 1865 as a federal law enforcement agency tasked with sniffing out counterfeiters. Secret Service agents started protecting sitting presidents in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. McKinley was the third U.S. president assassinated in less than 50 years, the others being Abraham Lincoln (1865) and James Garfield (1881).

Former presidents started receiving Secret Service protection after the 1958 Former Presidents Act and Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first former president to receive that honor. In 1965, Congress instituted lifetime protection for former presidents.


Today, the Secret Service is tasked with protecting:

  • the sitting president, vice president and their families
  • former presidents and their spouses for their lifetime (if they divorce and the spouse remarries, they no longer receive Secret Service protection)
  • children of former presidents who are under 16
  • former vice presidents and their families up to six months after leaving office
  • major presidential candidates and their spouses (within 120 days of the election)
  • visiting former dignitaries

A sitting president or vice president cannot refuse Secret Service protection while in office, but all of the others on that list can, including former presidents.

From 1994 through 2012, former presidents were only entitled to 10 years of free Secret Service protection. Congress passed the law because it costs millions of dollars of taxpayer money to pay for round-the-clock security for former presidents and their spouses. Congress restored the lifetime guarantee in 2013, citing heightened security concerns.