Joe Biden might be back on the campaign trail after months of quarantining in the basement of his Delaware home, but his team is still trying to keep him inside an impenetrable coronavirus bubble.
“I stepped one foot out and one foot in. He grabs me and basically throws me back in the pen,” the photographer recalled.
“All he had to do when I stepped out was say, ‘Step back in.’ I know what to do. I said, ‘Don’t fucking touch me.’ He yelled, ‘What did you say?’ I look down both his fists are in a clenched, punch attack mode. He is ready to pop.”
While the report says Morris “chest bumped” the agent after they came face to face, Morris denies it.
“They say I chest bumped him. I did not. I was stepping up to talk to him,” Morris said. “He said, ‘What did you say to me?’ I said, ‘Fuck you!’ And he slams me. … The only thing I did was I assaulted him with my voice.”
Morris, who made his name covering wars in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya before spending almost a decade photographing the White House, says he’s no hothead but was enraged by the agent’s aggressiveness.
“I’m kicking. He just assaulted me and I want him off me. He was still coming at me when I hit the ground. He says he was going to handcuff me, handcuff me for what? For saying, ‘fuck you’?” the photographer added.
The inspector general report appears to accept claims by the agent that he felt physically threatened by Morris prior to slamming him onto the table, but the veteran photographer says that’s laughable.
“I’m 135 pounds and 60 years old. My chest isn’t going to break anything,” he said. “This guy did not fear me. This guy hated me.”
Morris also scoffed at claims from the agent and Secret Service instructors that he was a greater threat because he was carrying a camera — something that could seem to justify using authorities using force against any photographer covering the president or a presidential campaign.
“When in the history of the White House and politics has any accredited member of the press attacked anybody with a camera, much less a fist? This is absurd,” the photographer said.
Morris wasn’t seriously hurt in the episode. In an email to investigators, Time’s lawyer said Morris suffered from a sore neck and lower back pain for about a week after the event.
The inspector general report shows investigators questioned eight experts, all of whom worked as law enforcement trainers either for the Secret Service or the broader federal government. All backed the agent’s actions. While giving their blessing to the agent’s conduct, the experts appeared to disagree about whether his takedown of Morris used a technique taught to Secret Service personnel.
Some experts said the move looked like a maneuver known as a “chin tilt” where a suspect is subdued by simultaneously grabbing his chin and pressing on his back, although one said that it was “poorly executed” if that’s what the agent was attempting because he ended up holding Morris by the neck.
“The USSS does not teach chokes or any techniques involving the throat,” an unnamed Secret Service sergeant assigned to the Service’s training site in Beltsville, Maryland said.
“The situation was dynamic and typically agents can grab any area of the body available to gain control of the subject especially if the subject is moving,” a Secret Service agent who works on Trump’s protective detail every few weeks told the inspector general’s office.
Figueroa told investigators he was not actually trying to take Morris down, but to handcuff him. According to the report, the agent “stated he had limited space, his hand may have slipped, and he did not intend to grab [Morris’] neck.”
Journalists on the scene had a different perspective from the experts, saying that the agent clearly overreacted to a mild infraction on Morris’ part.
Joe Perticone, who made a couple viral videos of the incident and was a reporter at the time with Independent Journal Review, described the agent as first chest bumping Morris as he tried to maneuver to get shots of the protesters being led out. In an interview included in the report, Perticone said both men acted “unprofessionally,” but “the USSS agent let his anger take over control and the ‘violence’ of the encounter was on the USSS agent.”
POLITICO reporter Gabby Orr, then with the Washington Examiner, also had a close-up view of the incident.
“The agent saying he used minimal force is laughable,” she said in an interview for this story. “There was no preliminary incident or attempt to diffuse the situation with minimal force. It was just a full-on choke slam onto a table.”
An eyewitness to the entire confrontation, Orr rejected the agent’s account that Morris “somehow fell to the ground.” The moment unfolded amid “complete mayhem,” she recalled, as she, Morris and other journalists rushed to a corner of the press pen to see the protesters.
Some of the law enforcement experts’ observations and opinions seem open to dispute, particularly about procedures involving the press at political events. “A press pen is usually within close proximity of the protectee,” the sergeant said.
“When an agent stands post, it’s the agent’s job to stop anyone entering an area in which the agent is charged with protecting.”
But a diagram in the report shows that the press pen at the Radford event was in the center of the arena, more than 50 feet away from the candidate. And Morris appeared to be trying to leave the pen, not enter it.
The report also reflects disagreement about whether members of the press were told they could not exit that area. Some, including the agent who tussled with Morris, said campaign personnel briefed the journalists on that rule that day. However, Morris said there was no such briefing. A reporter from WFXR-TV told investigators he “was not given any instructions on-site from Trump Campaign staff or USSS personnel aside from being told to be in the pen by 11:00 A.M.”
A union attorney who represented Figueroa during the investigation, Lawrence Berger of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he and the agent would have no comment.
Most of the identifying information about the agent was redacted from the IG report, but he was relatively junior at the Secret Service and based at its New York office. His name and age — he was 33 at the time — were released in a police report POLITICO obtained from Radford.
Morris said another agent told him that Figueroa had joined the Secret Service after serving in Iraq . An Army captain by the same name authored an article in a military police bulletin in 2007 describing the pressures of transporting planes full of prisoners there after the Abu Ghraib scandal.
“Squad leaders ensured that their Soldiers knew how to defuse situations with the least amount of force while exercising authority over the detainees,” Figueroa wrote. “The willingness of leaders to maintain all aspects of military discipline among the ranks kept our military police Soldiers out of the hospital, out of jail, and out of the news.”
Morris said his interactions with the agent hours before the Trump rally incident left him with the feeling that he was both a rookie and on edge.
“This guy, I could tell, was a recent hire. I could sense something was up with this guy,” the photographer said. He also speculated that Figueroa may have harbored some resentment against him after prominent Trump aide Hope Hicks stopped by the platform and told the agent that Morris needed to be there — with heavy lighting gear — because he was getting on the Trump campaign plane after the event.
TV crews had been on the platform all day, leaving food wrappers and other debris, which Morris said he decided to toss into a trash can about ten feet away.
“This agent puts his hands on me, touches me—something I hadn’t encountered with an agent in all my career,” the photographer said. “He got in front of me and stopped me and said, ‘You can’t leave the pen. You need to be escorted.’”
A Trump campaign advance aide, Haley Baumgardner, was called to the scene to walk Morris to the trash can. She seemed surprised, he said. “She said to the agent, ‘You need to relax with him,’” Morris recalled.
Baumgardner, who is now a strategic adviser on energy issues who registered as a lobbyist for Malaysia in 2017, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Morris’ perception that the agent did not have much experience dealing with the press turned out to be on the mark, according to the watchdog report. It says Figueroa never served as a press agent for a full event before the one involving the altercation with Morris. The agent had briefly relieved another agent doing press duty at one prior event, the report says.
The report also says Figueroa missed the pre-event briefing for Secret Service personnel working the Radford Trump rally. He was later filled in on his duties by another agent.
While some press advocates faulted the report for failing to delve into the wisdom of the agent’s actions or whether related Secret Service procedures or training should be changed, a spokeswoman for the DHS inspector general said that was not the purpose of the probe.
“This was a criminal investigation to determine whether the USSS agent’s use of force violated Title 18 U.S.C. Section 242,” OIG spokeswoman Tanya Alridge said, referring to a federal law against civil rights violations by government agents. “Given that this was a criminal investigation, an evaluation of the USSS’s existing policies was not within its scope.”
A Secret Service spokesperson declined to comment on the report and on whether any discipline was imposed against the agent.
The inspector general report indicates that about four months after the incident the Secret Service updated its policies governing protective work for political candidates, but the agency refused to comment on whether any changes were made as a result of the episode.
“The Secret Service does not comment on personnel matters,” the spokesperson said, declining to elaborate.
It’s unclear how seriously the feds considered prosecuting Morris, but he said that as he was led out of the arena the lead Secret Service agent whispered to him: “Eighteen years—18 years for assaulting a federal officer in the line of duty.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Virginia, which considered whether to charge Morris, declined to comment on the scope of its review or the rationale for the decision.
Asked about the decision not to prosecute the agent, Justice Department spokesman Matt Lloyd offered this statement: “Evidence in the matter was reviewed by career civil rights division prosecutors who determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer had willfully used excessive force.”
Spokespeople for Time magazine, which has changed owners twice since the 2016 incident, did not respond to requests for comment.
POLITICO first sought details on the inspector general’s probe under the Freedom of Information Act in 2017, but the request was denied because the investigation was ongoing. A new request sent in July 2018 led to 86 pages of records being approved for release to POLITICO in March 2020, but the email was misaddressed.
After further inquiry, the records were finally sent earlier this summer, although large portions were blacked out on privacy grounds or on claims that they reveal sensitive law enforcement techniques.
Besides the foul language, Morris has one other regret: that after years putting his life on the line to cover wars and conflicts, he’ll be remembered for what happened at a small Virginia university on Leap Day 2016.
“It’s ironic that with my whole career, when you google my name what comes up are not my photos, but images of this incident with the Secret Service agent,” he said.