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On October 25, as federal agencies, including the Secret Service, were on a fierce hunt for the person who sent pipe bombs to the Clintons, the Obamas, billionaire George Soros, and other Donald Trump critics, two Secret Service agents paid a visit to comedian and actor Tom Arnold and questioned him to determine if he posed a threat to the president. And they delivered Arnold a warning that was also highly appropriate for the man they are duty-bound to protect: Tweets can encourage violence.
During a campaign rally a few days prior, Trump had praised Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) for once body-slamming a reporter. Outraged, Arnold reacted by challenging Trump to a fight. He tweeted, “I say put up or shut up @realDonaldTrump Me vs You. For America. First body slam wins. Any Rally. Any Time. Between now & the midterms. #FridayFeeling.” And Arnold, a onetime Trump pal who became a passionate Trump detractor, followed that up with a tweet that referenced the infamous photo of comedian Kathy Griffin holding a bloody replica of Trump’s head: “Next time Kathy won’t be holding his fake head!”
For Arnold, a bad-boy provocateur who hosted a Viceland series called The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, this was all a joke. But not so for the Secret Service, which has the mission of investigating threats against the president. On October 24, the Secret Service office in Los Angeles, acting on instructions from Washington headquarters, reached out to Arnold’s agent and arranged to send two agents to Arnold’s home the next day.
Arnold recorded the hourlong encounter that took place in his living room. According to Arnold, the agents were aware he was filming the conversation with a security camera that was visible to them. He has allowed Mother Jones to review the full video and post a portion of it. (At Arnold’s request, Mother Jones is not identifying the agents.) Asked about the visit to Arnold’s house, a Secret Service spokeswoman said, “For operational security reasons, the Secret Service cannot discuss specifically nor in general terms the means, methods or resources we utilize to carry out our protective responsibilities.”
Arnold and the two agents sat on a large L-shaped couch, with Arnold stretching out and propping his feet on an ottoman. The agents asserted that Arnold had not been singled out. “We go out on any and all tweets and Facebook posts or any type of threat,” one said. “We don’t just focus on—it doesn’t matter if you have 100 followers on Facebook or 500,000 followers…We have to do our due diligence.” The two men had a list of routine queries for the actor: his height, his weight, his Social Security number. They asked whether he had ever been trained in martial arts. (No.) Did he have any intention of attending a Trump rally? (No.) Not even as a publicity stunt? (No.) Did he have any plans to fly to Washington to try to confront Trump? (No.) How does he typically behave when he gets angry in the workplace? (You put it into the performance.) When was the last time he fired a gun? (“I fired for movies.”) Did he know how to make IEDs? (No.) If he saw Trump, would he have an “impulse…to swing at him?” (“I’m not a crazy person.”) Did he have any ex-wives? (Three, including one named Roseanne.)
Arnold wondered if anyone in the Secret Service ever gave Trump the same talk about how social media posts can incite violence . “After all,” he says, “he needs it far more than me.”Arnold, who says he recognized that the agents were doing their jobs, courteously responded to all the questions, often in a stream-of-consciousness manner that would be familiar to any of his fans. He explained that he had known Trump for decades: They used to go to the Playboy Mansion together—and at least once to Elton John’s pediatric AIDS benefit. His break with Trump came, Arnold explained, when Trump began promoting the racist birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. Arnold detailed his previous addictions and his efforts to become sober. He explained his Griffin tweet as “a random throw-away” and insisted that he had been appalled by the Griffin photo shoot. “I would never be part of something like that,” said Arnold, who grew up in Iowa. “I worked at a meatpacking plant on the killing floor for three years.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the interrogation came when the two agents explained to Arnold that the Secret Service’s main concern was not that he was personally dangerous but that tweets and Facebook posts can spur others to engage in violent action. One of the agents noted, “We’re not the First Amendment police… You’re free to say whatever you want to say within certain boundaries… In your type of case, what we’re concerned with a lot, too, is the audience it can reach, that it could incite somebody to do something.”
Arnold replied that he was sensitive to this because he has received death threats. The agent continued, “You see a lot of times when we’ve had previous attempts on the president’s life, they got motivated by somebody… So that’s the worry. It’s kind of twofold. We’re addressing the tweet, but we also want to make sure what you said, what can be taken as… And then obviously at the end of this whole thing, the biggest thing is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The second agent reinforced the message that social media posts from prominent people can trigger others to commit violence: “You’re a public figure. So as we go on several interviews with, more like, individuals who are public figures…obviously we address anything you may have tweeted or post on Facebook or something. But what we have to worry about is your type of audience and you say something inciting those that follow you… You might be, might be using it in a comedian-type sense, or whatever, you know, being very comical about it. But there’s a lot of people out there who may really follow Tom Arnold. ‘He said this, and that’s the exact thing I needed that. I need to go get this and go ahead to the next rally, yeah, and carry this out.’ But you might have meant it in something like a playful jest.” Later this agent said that Secret Service agents “do research and monitor a lot of social media,” and he added, “Something could be taken out of context.”
Arnold promised the agents he would “stay away” from tweets and statements that could be misinterpreted, especially because he did not want to impose any burden on the Secret Service.
Toward the end of the interview, the agents asked if they could speak to Arnold’s wife, Ashley. After she joined them, one asked, “Is there anything we should be concerned about?…Anything of a particular nature to the president?…Any unusual behavior?” She shook her head.
One of the agents reiterated their foremost worry: “We always are more concerned about who you could motivate or incite to that action.” Without pause, Ashley responded, “That’s how we feel about Trump.”
Neither agent replied to that. Arnold picked up the conversation, and he remarked, “I’m going to respect what you said.” The agents then took a photo of Arnold and departed. Afterward, Arnold felt bad that his actions had consumed the time of Secret Service agents. He took down the tweet referring to Griffin and Trump’s head.
The following day—after the pipe bomb suspect had been arrested and turned out to be a rabid Trump supporter who bought into right-wing conspiracy theories of the sort Trump has encouraged—Arnold wondered if anyone in the Secret Service ever gave Trump the same talk. “After all,” Arnold says, “he needs it far more than me.”