Chinese security personnel physically “skirmished” with a Secret Service agent as well as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly last year at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People over the goddamn nuclear football, according to a report in Axios on Sunday.
Per Axios, five sources confirmed that Donald Trump’s delegation was entering the Great Hall during a state visit on November 9th, 2017 before the Chinese personnel in question attempted to stop the aide-de-camp carrying the football, a metal briefcase containing US nuclear launch codes which is supposed to be near the president at all times. From there, a US official rushed into another room to advise Kelly of the situation; Kelly allegedly rushed over and told all US personnel to continue moving onward. That sparked a confrontation in which a Chinese guard grabbed Kelly, who shoved him off before a Secret Service agent “tackled him to the ground.”
Crucially, no one from the Chinese side of the alleged scuffle made physical contact with the football. Instead the incident “was over in a flash,” Axios reported, and the head of the Chinese security detail “apologized to the Americans afterwards for the misunderstanding.” But it’s not clear why the incident occurred in the first place, or whether the Chinese guards were deliberately screwing with the US delegation.
Per the Guardian, Chinese security personnel have a reputation for swagger during diplomatic visits, though never quite this serious, and the US delegation apparently erred on the side of keeping the matter quiet rather than risk undermining the trip.
It’s also not the first time an alarming incident emerged regarding the nuclear football under Trump’s tenure. In February 2017, while Trump was huddling with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over some incredibly casually exposed classified documents in a crowded dining room at Mar-A-Lago, one of the resort’s guests posed for photos with the aide carrying it.
Update, 3:41pm ET: The Secret Service has issued a statement via Twitter saying “reports about Secret Service agents tackling a host nation official” during the trip are false, though it did not deny that there was any kind of skirmish over the football.
It’s also possible that the agency is debating the meaning of the word “tackling”—the NFL definition stipulates that a tackle occurs when a defensive player takes an offensive player all the way to the ground, but there’s as of yet no photo or video of the encounter that might shed more light on it.
Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly stated Kelly’s first name. Ray Kelly is the former commissioner of the NYPD, who vaguely resembles but is, obviously, not the White House chief of staff. We regret the error.