Obama Said to Lose Faith in Pierson After Elevator LapseMichael C. Bender and Margaret Talev
Elijah Cummings had it right at 7 a.m.
“This lady has to go,” Cummings, a congressman from Baltimore, Maryland, said about Secret Service Director Julia Pierson yesterday on a radio program. “There has to be drastic changes.”
As White House officials spent their morning insisting that Pierson, 55, had the confidence of President Barack Obama and it looked like the one-time Orlando police officer might keep her job protecting the commander-in-chief and his family, Cummings, a Democrat, did some backtracking. Then, by mid-afternoon, the first woman to lead the U.S. Secret Service was out, the swiftest downfall of any of Obama’s nominees in his two terms in office.
It happened so fast that no one had time to make the customary call to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
The final straw wasn’t something Pierson did. It was what she didn’t do: Brief the president on how a man with a gun and criminal record wound up riding in an elevator beside him.
While it’s been about two weeks since a man named Omar J. Gonzalez scaled the White House fence and managed to get deep into the executive mansion before being captured, Obama has generally avoided scapegoating members of his administration in the midst of a scandal.
Kathleen Sebelius maintained her post as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department for months after the troubled rollout of the the president’s Affordable Care Act. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been perhaps the most politically unpopular member of Obama’s administration and a repeated target of Republican investigations in the House, only announced his resignation last month after taking office in 2009. It took a month after reports of systemic failure to care for military veterans before Obama accepted the resignation of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, which he did while saying the former Army general did “exemplary work.”
Obama eschews drama, rewards loyalty and resists getting pushed around by Republicans, the media and other critics. Yet in this case, with stakes as high as his life and those of his children, he opted for swift action, putting Pierson in the ranks with General Stanley McChrystal, whose resignation letter was quickly inserted in his personnel records after a reckless disrespect of the commander in chief in a Rolling Stone interview.
“It’s painful to leave as the agency is reeling from a significant security breach,” Pierson said in an interview with Bloomberg News, adding that “it’s the noble thing to step down and to take the pressure off the organization.”
What changed in a matter of hours for Pierson?
“Director Pierson offered her resignation,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when asked that question by reporters.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
Pierson had sat through hours of questioning on Sept. 30 from House lawmakers, including Cummings, where she insisted that she had kept Obama briefed on security breaches. After the hearing, agency officials confirmed another lapse occurred on Sept. 16 when they permitted an armed security guard with a criminal record to get on an elevator in Atlanta with Obama.
Earnest said that Obama hadn’t heard about that incident until just moments before news organizations reported it.
Pierson had withheld information about that breach until her hand was forced, said an administration official familiar with the developments who spoke on condition of anonymity. She’d met with Obama on Sept. 25 in the Oval Office and did not disclose it then.
The president’s concerns had already been building. Though the Obamas were out of town at the time, Gonzalez’s trespass through the White House left the president worried about the future safety of his family, the official said.
Yesterday morning, Republicans were on the move, turning the security lapses into a political issue. In a news release, the National Republican Senatorial Committee connected them to the Obamacare rollout, underestimating the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the failures at the VA medical centers to say Democrats were “asleep at the wheel.”
“Washington could not look more inept, incompetent and outdated than it has over the past year,” the group wrote in an e-mail.
At about the same time, White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri appeared on MSNBC to say Obama had “confidence in Director Pierson’s ability to do this job.” Cummings then backed away from the strong opinions he aired on Roland Martin’s NewsOne Now radio program, posting on Twitter that “I have not decided about Pierson.”
Later yesterday morning, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, in her weekly news conference, called for an independent investigation “to hold people accountable.” Pelosi, of California, the security breaches “inexcusable,” but stopped short of calling for Pierson’s resignation.
“I’d like to see an investigation of the culture and the procedures and the accountability in the Secret Service,” she said. “I do think the challenge may go beyond her.”
Momentum was building.
Shortly before noon, the White House announced -- without explanation -- that Earnest would delay until 3:15 p.m. a news conference that was scheduled to start at 12:15.
Washington abhors a vacuum, and the delay and radio silence from the White House needed to be filled. Cue: Senator John McCain.
The Arizona Republican, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said on MSNBC that Pierson’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee, where Cummings is the top ranking Democrat, “left us with more questions than answers.”
“When a member of the president’s own party turns against an individual with a scandal such as this, and it is scandalous, then it’s just a matter of time now before that person will be replaced,” McCain said.
If Cummings wasn’t going to be the first Democrat to call for Pierson’s head, then New York’s Chuck Schumer would.
Within about 90 minutes of McCain’s interview airing, Schumer -- the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate -- sent word to reporters that he’d hold a news conference at 4 p.m. (after the White House briefing) to call for Pierson to be replaced.
Obama’s administration announced Pierson’s resignation at about 3 p.m.
The president had not demanded Pierson’s resignation before she offered it yesterday afternoon to Johnson. Johnson accepted it, having learned that Obama and his team had lost confidence in Pierson, said the official.