Ed noted this morning that the two Secret Service agents who were in the SUV with Trump that day are — allegedly — denying that he ever tried to grab the wheel or lunged at one of them. I say “allegedly” because neither has given interviews yet. “Sources” are pushing the denials to reporters.
But there’s a third figure involved who’s at least as important as those two. That’s Tony Ornato, the Secret Service agent who became Trump’s deputy chief of staff and supposedly told Cassidy Hutchinson the story of what happened in the SUV. Hutchinson’s credibility now depends in great part on Ornato’s response to her testimony. If he admits that he told her about Trump getting pushy but that the story turned out to be false, she’s okay. If he accuses her of lying then she becomes a problematic witness.
Very problematic, I should say, since her testimony that Trump knew there were weapons in the crowd at the rally would be key to prosecuting him criminally for incitement. How do you make that charge stick if the star witness’s credibility is in question?
Sources tell Fox News that Ornato was stunned to hear her blame him for the SUV story yesterday. Which sounds to me like he’s preparing to call her a liar.
[A] source close to Ornato told Fox News that Ornato watched the hearing yesterday and was shocked when Cassidy made the allegation about the steering wheel.
Both Bobby Engel, the top agent on Trump’s Secret Service detail who was in the car, and Ornato, who was not in the car, testified to the January 6 Committee in private over the past year, the source close to Ornato said.
Engel and Ornato never brought up part about steering wheel, according to that source. Both want to testify on the record again and refute the part about Trump grabbing or trying to grab the wheel. The driver of the SUV, who is unnamed, will also cooperate with the committee.
Fox’s team isn’t the only one reporting this:
A source close to Tony Ornato tells me Tony heard the steering wheel story for the first time today and he is willing to testify under oath that he never shared it.
The source stressed that denying this portion of the testimony does not mean other parts are false. https://t.co/5WewVcqVit
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) June 29, 2022
CNN is also hearing that Ornato denies telling Hutchinson the story. Case closed: Hutchinson’s a liar, then?
Well, hold on. Both Fox and Ali say their sources are corroborating other parts of Hutchinson’s story. Per Fox, “A source close to the USSS says Hutchinson was truthful when she said that Trump was furious inside the SUV. Trump did want to go to the Capitol on January 6 and was yelling and shouting. However, the steering wheel part is false, per this source.” Ali adds that his source confirms that Ornato, Hutchinson, and others did gather in the White House after the rally, as she claimed, although Ornato supposedly didn’t say anything at that gathering about Trump trying to grab the wheel on the ride over.
We have a problem here that’s become more common in the Trump era, trying to distill the truth from conflicting accounts among multiple unreliable narrators. For instance, here’s a tweet that made me laugh out loud this afternoon:
I can’t belive Trump supporters are replying, with complete sincerity, “If you’d lie about one thing, you can’t be trusted on anything.” https://t.co/PN81CcWVYT
— Eric Nelson (@literaryeric) June 29, 2022
Do we think this is true, for instance?
— Ron Filipkowski 🇺🇦 (@RonFilipkowski) June 28, 2022
Trump hardly knows who Hutchinson is? Last night former Paul Ryan staffer Brendan Buck tweeted, “I don’t know Cassidy Hutchinson, and I can’t speak to how things worked at the White House, but when Meadows was on the Hill he always insisted that she be in *every* meeting he had, no matter how small.” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s previous chief of staff, said yesterday that he knows Hutchinson and doesn’t think she was lying. Laura Ingraham said on the air last night that she’s met Hutchinson a few times over the years too.
They all know her and somehow Trump barely knows her? The top aide to his own chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who was always around Meadows when Meadows was always around Trump?
If Trump is lying about not knowing Hutchinson, what conclusions should we draw about his denials of the rest of her allegations?
What conclusion should we draw from the fact that other figures who were backstage with Trump at the January 6 rally haven’t rushed out denials about her most explosive testimony, that he knew and didn’t care that his fans were carrying weapons because the weapons weren’t meant for him?
Consider the possibility — just a possibility — that Tony Ornato and the agents are lying, whether because they feel personal loyalty to Trump or because they deem themselves duty-bound as an institutional matter not to embarrass the presidents they serve as Secret Service agents. I emphasize again that Trump, the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 nomination, promoted Ornato to a powerful political position inside his White House by making him deputy chief of staff, something I’ve never heard happen to a Secret Service agent. Ornato owes Trump. And may yet work for him again.
And if you believe some other former Trump staffers, Ornato has lied before about other witnesses’ testimony to the committee:
Tony Ornato lied about me too. During the protests at Lafayette sq in 2020, I told Mark Meadows & Ornato they needed to warn press staged there before clearing the square. Meadows replied: “we aren’t doing that.” Tony later lied &said the exchange never happened. He knows it did. https://t.co/qeT0pUxGMC
— Alyssa Farah Griffin 🇺🇸 (@Alyssafarah) June 29, 2022
It would have been nice to have Ornato at yesterday’s hearing, or at least some properly skeptical Republicans on the panel to question Hutchinson. It was Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to appoint anyone to the committee after Pelosi rejected Jim Jordan and Jim Banks on grounds that they would have been improperly skeptical. But even without skeptical questioners, Andy McCarthy reminds us that this sort of one-sided proceeding is commonplace in American law. “We should understand, in any event, that what Cheney did with Hutchinson Tuesday is what prosecutors do with witnesses in grand juries every day: drawing out the witness’s testimony with no obligation to provide the defense perspective,” he wrote last night at NRO. “To be sure, no one gets convicted at the grand-jury stage, but an awful lot of people get indicted this way, and on far less evidence than the country heard today.”
Of course, grand jury hearings take place behind closed doors, not on national television. That way, important details that may turn out not to be true don’t get broadcast to tens of millions of people. But the committee will pay the price for that if it turns out that Hutchinson’s testimony about Ornato can’t be corroborated: Once her credibility is damaged, they’ll have to explain somehow why they chose to let her provide damaging hearsay that didn’t bear out in the end.
And why, allegedly, they didn’t bother to re-interview Ornato or the Secret Service agents before Hutchinson testified:
Anthony Guglielmi, the service’s chief of communications, told POLITICO that select committee investigators did not ask Secret Service personnel to reappear or answer questions in writing in the 10 days before asking Hutchinson about the matter at the hearing.
“[W]e were not asked to reappear before the Committee in response to yesterday’s new information and we plan on formally responding on the record,” he wrote in an email. “We have and will continue to make any member of the Secret Service available.”
The committee’s credibility is at stake now too. In lieu of an exit question, go read the Washington Examiner’s editorial on what Hutchinson had to say. “Trump is a disgrace. Republicans have far better options to lead the party in 2024. No one should think otherwise, much less support him, ever again.”