RNC escalates pressure on Secret Service to distance protest area from convention venues

WASHINGTON – The Republican National Committee on Thursday accused the U.S. Secret Service of failing to properly address security for the presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee as Republicans continued their push to move a designated protest area.

In a letter to Secret Service Director Kimberly Cheatle, an RNC attorney claimed the agency's apparent unwillingness to further expand the convention's security perimeter could endanger Republican National Convention attendees and create an "untenable risk of violence."

"Your failure to act now to prevent these unnecessary and certain risks will imperil tens of thousands of Convention attendees, inexcusably forcing them into close proximity to the currently planned First Amendment Zone," Todd Steggerda, the RNC counsel, wrote.

The letter, first reported by Politico, is the latest attempt from Republicans to eliminate a designated protest area at Pere Marquette Park about a quarter mile from Fiserv Forum, the convention’s main event center. Republicans on Thursday proposed moving the convention's security perimeter, which requires credentials to enter, one block east to include the park.

Steggerda said the GOP's proposal "is narrowly tailored to balance the multiple concrete, specific, and well-founded national security and public safety risks."

Steggerda's letter cited concerns about the Coalition to March on the RNC 2024, a collection of groups planning to protest the convention. He cited, in part, the coalition co-chair's comments about not following the city's permit process if the group does not agree with the planned protest location.

Protest organizers have pushed to move the designated protest location closer to the heart of the convention than the expected site at Pere Marquette Park.

Coalition Co-Chair Omar Flores Thursday evening dismissed Steggerda's concerns, saying the group was planning a family friendly march and that the letter does not change the group's approach.

He, too, rejected Pere Marquette Park — but for a different reason than Republicans. The coalition does not want to hold its demonstration in the park because the city is creating a "conflict zone" there in which far right-wing speakers would not be excluded from speaking, Flores said.

"We're not going there, not because we don't care about what the city says ... or we plan on creating violence or whatever they're saying about us," he said. "We're doing it because we're actually trying to avoid a conflict zone."

Flores accused the RNC of trying to "bully" the Secret Service and the city into "making Milwaukee in the Republicans' image."

Steggerda's came just over a week after Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raised the concerns with Cheatle in separate meetings on Capitol Hill. Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time that Cheatle said the agency did not have the "authority" to change the perimeter, and the Secret Service indicated it had no plans to seek changes.

“The security perimeter for the 2024 Republican National Convention is based on security considerations, including protective intelligence, risk and threat assessments, and is developed to ensure the highest level of security, while minimizing impacts to the public,” Anthony Guglielmi, chief of communications for the Secret Service, told the Journal Sentinel last week.

Still, Johnson said he would continue to work with McConnell to urge the Secret Service to adjust the security plans.

City officials have said the city must provide a speaker's podium and march route that is within "sight and sound" of the RNC under the U.S. Constitution and the RNC framework agreement to which city leaders signed on in 2022.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson's chief of staff Nick DeSiato said in March that Pere Marquette Park would be a "likely candidate" for the speaker's platform.

Pere Marquette was the designated protest area for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but that event turned largely virtual during the coronavirus pandemic and the park drew limited activity.

A "security footprint" downtown is expected to extend from Cherry Street to the north to West Clybourn Street on the south and from North Water Street on the east to North 9th Street on the west.

Within that footprint will be a fenced-in area around the main convention venues that will not be accessible to anyone but credentialed attendees. The event will take place at Fiserv Forum, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Baird Center.

On Thursday, Steggerda, the RNC attorney, cited reports of planned protests at the convention, which is set for July 15-18, and said the local Secret Service team in Milwaukee "has been unresponsive to the RNC’s reasonable proposal" to expand the security perimeter one block.

"With less than two months before the Convention and even less time before the USSS finalizes the Plan, it is imperative you take personal and immediate steps to fix this unacceptable flaw in the design of the Security Perimeter," he wrote.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: RNC escalates pressure on Secret Service to distance protest area