White House chief of staff John Kelly, a U.S. Secret Service agent and the U.S. military aide in charge of the so-called nuclear football were involved in a skirmish with Chinese security officials during President Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing in November, a report said Sunday.
News website Axios, quoting five sources familiar with the events, reported that the incident occurred on Nov. 9 as Trump and his team visited Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
It said the row began when the U.S. military aide carrying the nuclear football attempted to enter the Great Hall but was blocked by Chinese security officials.
According to White House protocol, the aide carrying the nuclear football — the black briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes for the president — is one of two people, the other being a doctor, who are supposed to remain close to the president at all times.
After being notified of the situation, Kelly reportedly rushed to the adjoining room, ordering U.S. officials to continue walking, telling them, “We’re moving in,” according to Axios. This prompted a commotion and a Chinese security official grabbed Kelly, who responded by shoving the man’s hand off of his body. A Secret Service agent then grabbed the Chinese security official and tackled him to the ground.
The report said the scuffle “was over in a flash, and the U.S. officials told about the incident were asked to keep quiet about it.” The nuclear football, the report added, was never touched by the Chinese, and the head of the security details later apologized for the “misunderstanding.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the story, but Kelly Magsamen, a former top Asia adviser to the U.S. secretary of defense in the Obama administration, said the such incidents of harassment by the Chinese were not uncommon.
“The Chinese harass every high level USG delegation. I’ve experienced it on two SecDef trips. It can get sporty. But this is beyond the norm,” Magsamen wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for the U.S. government.
Jorge Guajardo, a Mexican diplomat who served as the country’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, said he had witnessed firsthand similar incidents.
“Most Foreign heads of state visiting China have a similar scuffle with a Chinese security official during their visit. Stories abound. I believe the report,” Guajardo wrote on Twitter.
“When my president visited, a Mexican photographer ended (up) in the hospital,” he added.
The Trump administration’s handling of the nuclear launch codes also came under scrutiny last year after a visitor to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida posted to Facebook a photo of himself posting with the person he said was responsible for carrying the football.
The reported November diplomatic tussle was also not the first for a U.S. leader visiting China.
In September 2016, President Barack Obama was subject to what some at the time called an intentional diplomatic snub as he arrived for the Group of 20 summit in the Chinese host city of Hangzhou.
At the airport there, authorities rolled out the red carpet for arriving leaders but Obama, who was on his final trip to Asia, was forced to disembark Air Force One via a rarely used alternative exit after no staircase was provided.
That trip also saw a quarrel erupt between a presidential aide and a Chinese official who demanded journalists traveling with Obama be prohibited from getting anywhere near him, a breach of decorum observed whenever the American president arrives in a foreign locale.
When the White House official insisted that the U.S. would set the rules for its own leader, her Chinese counterpart shot back in English: “This is our country! This is our airport!”
When the national security adviser at the time, Susan Rice, and then-senior White House staffer Ben Rhodes tried to get closer to the president, lifting up a blue rope and walking under it, the official turned his verbal fire on Rice in an attempt to block her progress. As they exchanged angry words her Secret Service agent stepped in to usher her past him.
Trump, who during his presidential campaign lambasted China over “unfair” trade practices and its island-building program in the South China Sea, has boasted of his relationship with leader Xi Jinping, heaping praise on the Chinese president during the November “state-plus” visit to Beijing.