During a presidential campaign that took acrimony with the press to unprecedented heights, the violent encounter between a Secret Service agent and a photographer at a Donald Trump rally at Radford University in southwest Virginia in February 2016 still manages to stand apart.
Viral videos of the confrontation show that as Time magazine photographer Christopher Morris stepped out of a so-called press pen to snap pictures of Black Lives Matter demonstrators, Secret Service agent William Figueroa grabbed Morris by the neck, lifted him and threw him onto a table.
After the pro-wrestling-style “choke slam,” Morris fell to the ground, could be seen kicking at Figueroa and briefly put his hand on the agent’s throat in what appeared to be an outraged reenactment of the earlier takedown.
Now, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report and other documents obtained exclusively by POLITICO show that federal investigators cleared the agent of any wrongdoing in the episode, finding his actions to have been “reasonable.”
Press advocates and Morris himself blasted that finding, contending that the body slam was an excessive use of force and that claims that the agent was in any real danger from the veteran photographer are absurd.
The newly released records and interviews with witnesses also reveal other previously undisclosed aspects about the jarring altercation and its aftermath, including:
— Federal prosecutors considered whether to bring criminal charges against Morris and Figueroa, but decided not to file a case against either man.
— Figueroa, the agent who slammed Morris, had never been assigned to guard the press before, aside from briefly filling in for a colleague on one occasion.
— Although Time issued a statement at the time expressing concern about the episode and the agent’s response, Morris declined to speak with investigators — on advice from a high-powered lawyer hired by the magazine.
— A particular focus of the probe was whether Figueroa sought to choke Morris. The agent denied any intention of doing so. Investigators said that if the agent ended up holding the photographer by the throat, it was an accident.
— Among the factors the report cited as justifying the decision to grab Morris and slam him onto a table was the possibility that the photographer might use his camera as a weapon.
— The veteran photographer was not even assigned to cover the rally, but was simply there to catch a ride to the campaign plane to take behind-the-scenes shots of Trump to accompany a Time interview with the candidate. After the altercation, the interview was abruptly canceled.
During a probe that spanned nearly two years, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security Office of inspector general consulted with a handful of witnesses and interviewed law enforcement training personnel before concluding that the body slam that stunned many observers was a legitimate use of force to resolve a potentially dangerous situation.
“We thus find that [the agent’s] use of force was reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances [and] was in keeping with USSS use of force policies and training tactics,” the DHS watchdog office declared in its report.
Journalists complained during the 2016 race that the Trump campaign was stricter than predecessors about confining the press to so-called pens, from which it was difficult to photograph or interview protesters. And some alleged that the Secret Service was drawn into enforcing those policies, even though they had more to do with public relations than security.
The inspector general report found that Figueroa had been instructed not to let camera crews leave the pen, that the use of such pens is “standard practice at large events,” and that Figueroa’s refusal to let Morris leave followed “established USSS security guidelines.” However, press advocates — including the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate — sharply criticized several conclusions in the report and urged the Secret Service to change its procedures to prevent future violence against journalists.
“In recent years there’s been a disturbing pattern of some law enforcement agencies and some officers neither appreciating nor respecting the constitutionally protected role of the press,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an amateur photographer who is known as a key defender of photojournalists.
“Journalists and photographers should not be confined to ‘press pens’ for widely attended public events,” Leahy added in a statement to POLITICO. “They should not be body-slammed. And they certainly should not be shot with rubber bullets or tear gassed for simply doing their jobs and covering demonstrations, as they have been in Portland under the Trump administration. This is America, after all, where our Founders wisely determined that a free press is essential to a free society.”
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said he was troubled by several aspects of the DHS inspector general report, including its support for the press pens.
“It is extremely disappointing but unsurprising that the report was such a self-serving justification for the clear overreaction by the agent to Mr. Morris’ attempt to cover the removal of protestors from the 2016 Trump campaign rally and another apparent attempt by an agency of the executive branch to support the president’s bidding,” said Osterreicher.
Osterreicher said he was also troubled that the report seemed to accept that it was reasonable to use force to prevent a journalist from leaving the press pen.
“The concept here is that once the press pen has been swept, the public should not be allowed into this secure area – not that the press shall only be allowed to gather news and images from inside the pen,” the attorney added. “Had the agent not acted as if Mr. Morris was committing a serious crime or security breach by attempting to leave the press pen, no force would have been needed or justified.”
Another press advocate said the report reflects confusion about the proper role of the Secret Service at political events.
“These journalists were all ‘credentialed’ and had gone through security screening. The agent, presumably, would have known that, and that they did not constitute a threat to Trump, nor were they BLM protesters trying to cause a disturbance,” said University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“And yet, the agent treated the photographer as if he was simply a member of the crowd. It seems to me that the Secret Service role should be to protect Trump from direct threats, not to engage in crowd control. … This was an overreaction on the agent’s part,” Kirtley said.
Morris, in his first interview about the episode since the day it grabbed headlines four years ago, expressed disappointment in the results of the DHS review. He said the report contained errors, but he also acknowledged that investigators never had his complete account because he declined to be interviewed.
“There are so many inaccuracies in the thing because I wasn’t able to give my side of the story, but now I’m glad I didn’t give my side of it,” the photographer said. He said he initially wanted to share his account, but an attorney retained by Time — former federal prosecutor and DHS official Baruch Weiss—said it was unwise to do so.
“He said: You have no idea how they are going to frame things. They can turn that right around into evidence against you, unless you get them to guarantee your testimony is not going to be used against you in a court of law,” Morris added.
Morris hadn’t received any update on the investigations until POLITICO provided him with a copy of the report. Reading it during a summer of tension involving police, protesters and minority communities, gave him fresh sympathy for those involved in fraught encounters with law enforcement.
“I’m a journalist … I’m white,” Morris said. “I can only imagine what black people or others in society go through when they go through something with law enforcement and then they read about it in a police report.”
Shortly after the incident, Morris acknowledged he should not have cursed at the agent during the encounter. He sought to apologize to Figueroa that day, but colleagues led the agent away.
Nevertheless, Morris maintains that the agent was also in the wrong and that the first person to get physical was the agent, not him.
Trump’s inflammatory anti-press rhetoric also played a role in stoking the incident, the photographer contends. “These agents sit in these rallies and listen to speaker after speaker trashing the press and then the candidate for president calling them the enemy of the people,” Morris said.
Morris said that prior to the altercation he believed that the agent was intentionally trying to block him from photographing the protesters as they were being escorted out.
“Trump starts going off on the media [and] this agent stands in front of me and he starts blocking me from taking photographs,” Morris said. “He’s standing in front of me to try to block me.”
“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.