The Quick Fall of Julia Pierson

It was the swiftest downfall of any of Obama's nominees.

Julia Pierson, director of the U.S. Secret Service, center, exits after a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Elijah Cummings had it right at 7 a.m.

"This lady has to go," Cummings, the Congressman from Baltimore, Maryland, said about Secret Service Director Julia Pierson on a morning radio program. “There has to be drastic changes.”

As White House officials spent Wednesday morning insisting that Pierson 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 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.

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 almost two weeks since a man named Omar J. Gonazalez 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 at Health & Human Services for months after the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. 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. It took a month after reports of systemic failure to care for military veterans before Obama accepted the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, which he did while noting the former Army general had "done exemplary work."

Obama eschews drama, rewards loyalty in kind and resists getting pushed around by Republicans, the media and any other form of critic. Yet in this case, with stakes as high as his life and those of his children, he opted for swift action, putting her among the slim ranks of the likes of 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 told reporters Wednesday. 

But it wasn't quite that simple.

Pierson had sat through hours of questioning Tuesday from U.S. House lawmakers, including Cummings, and 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 Wednesday that Obama hadn't heard about that incident until just moments before the news was reported by the Washington Examiner.

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' trespass through the White House left the president worried about the future safety of his family.

On Wednesday 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 Palmeri 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 in the morning, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, in her weekly news conference, called for an independent investigation "to hold people accountable." She called 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 radio silence emanating from the White House needed to be filled. Cue: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.

The Arizona Republican and 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 resignation, 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 press 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 this afternoon to Johnson. Johnson accepted it, having learned that Obama and his team had lost confidence in Pierson, said the official without elaborating.

 With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber and Kathleen Hunter.

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