"That did not happen": Secret Service doubling down in dispute over Hutchinson testimony

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

How did explosive testimony about Donald Trump’s purported assault in a presidential limo end up on national television at all? The credibility of Cassidy Hutchinson, the House’s January 6 committee, and the Secret Service have become entangled in the answer. Shortly after Hutchinson testified to hearsay that she claimed to have heard from Secret Service agent Tony Ornato that Trump tried to seize the steering wheel to force agents to take him to Capitol Hill, the Secret Service insisted that no such incident had ever taken place.

Despite an avalanche of criticism over their public intervention in the testimony, The Hill reports that the Secret Service is doubling down — and so is Ornato:

“There’s a lot of what Ms. Hutchinson said that is true. Certainly [Trump] wanted to go to the Capitol, that much we know. He said that publicly, he reiterated that inside the car,” a source close to the Secret Service told The Hill on Tuesday.

But the agency has also pushed back on Hutchinson’s account that Trump had lunged for the SUV’s steering wheel, and then towards the neck of Secret Service agent Robert Engel, after being told he was going back to the Oval Office — and not to the Capitol — following his defiant speech on the Ellipse.

Those acts of aggression, Hutchinson said, were relayed to her at the White House shortly after the rally by Tony Ornato, who upset Secret Service tradition by temporarily serving as Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations. Engel was in the room during that conversation, she added, and did not dispute the details.

Both Ornato and Engel, who remain active Secret Service agents, have said they are willing to testify under oath to dispute Hutchinson’s narrative, even as they have refused to speak publicly about it. The unnamed driver, the agency has signaled, is also denying her account.

“Ornato is a red herring,” the source said, noting that he was in his office at the time and not at the rally.

“There are three people in that vehicle: Bobby Engel, President Trump and the limo driver,” the source said, and both agents are “saying that did not happen.”

This once again raises the question as to why the committee had Hutchinson tell this story at all. She did not witness the supposed incident, but only claimed to have heard it second-hand from Ornato. The committee had already interviewed Ornato, but it’s not clear that they got the story from him at all.

In fact, the committee has gotten rather quiet about their due diligence on vetting this story before putting it on national television:

The Jan. 6 Committee Tuesday did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital asking if it has attempted to speak to Ornato or Engel since the hearing. It also did not respond to questions on if it reached out to the Secret Service to verify the allegations, if there may be further subpoenas related to Hutchinson’s claims, or if it’s taken any other actions to verify what she said.

USSS spokesperson Anthony Gugliemi said the agency does not have any information to share when asked if the committee has taken further steps to verify Hutchinson’s claims.

Meanwhile, the Secret Service refuses to remain silent about their own testimony. That may earn them some animosity on Capitol Hill, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the J6 committee to disclose what Ornato and Engel had already told them about the incident and whether they took basic steps to check Hutchinson’s new account. At the very least, this continued pressure from the Secret Service may end up forcing the committee to take testimony in public from Ornato and Engel that will damage their star witness — which they clearly have been trying to avoid.

Byron York picks out why the committee appears to have suckered itself into this credibility crisis:

The former top aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows sat for not one, not two, but three interviews with the committee before, in a fourth session, offering the story that then-President Donald Trump physically attacked his own Secret Service detail in an armored SUV on Jan. 6 in an effort to force the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol. What did Hutchinson say in those first three committee interviews, all videotaped and transcribed? Why did she wait until the fourth interview before relating the SUV allegation?

Normally, congressional committees do not like it when witnesses withhold information, especially in multiple appearances. The committee offered no information about the circumstances of Hutchinson’s testimony. It appeared to use a few clips from her earlier interviews, but even that is not clear. In any event, it provided no transcripts, no full videos, no nothing beyond the bits chosen by the producers.

Likewise with the committee’s interviews of the two White House staffers involved in Hutchinson’s story, then-deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato and Secret Service agent Robert Engel. We learned through reporting that the committee had interviewed them, too, but the committee never mentioned that simple fact during the Hutchinson testimony. Why not? Well, it might be because at the time the committee did its interview or interviews with Ornato and Engel, Hutchinson had not yet offered the SUV story, so the committee did not know to ask them about it.

Then one might ask: Why not bring Ornato and Engel back in and ask them about Hutchinson’s new story? Apparently, the committee was in too big of a hurry to do that. Members worried the blockbuster story would leak and drain the drama from the next episode. So they called a surprise hearing and rushed the SUV story into the public conversation without checking with other witnesses. Also, there was one more person involved — the driver of the SUV — and it is still not clear whether the committee has spoken to him. If it has, it hasn’t said a word about it. If it has not, that’s one more source it did not check before going public with Hutchinson.

The Secret Service made it plain yesterday that the driver also disputes Hutchinson’s story. That’s three against one on a hearsay matter that the committee largely didn’t need in the first place.

It’s all so unnecessary — and had the committee oriented itself in a properly adversarial format, one they likely would have avoided. On my Tuesday podcast, I discussed that aspect and the Hutchinson dilemma in general with attorney and legal analyst Paul Mirengoff of Rinsgide at the Reckoning, who agreed that this was a stunning and unforced error on the committee’s part. They needed Hutchinson to remain as credible as possible to bolster her standing on the single-source eyewitness testimony she provided. Having her deliver explosive and yet apparently unfounded hearsay demolishes the value of her other testimony, legally and likely politically as well.

The Secret Service does not appear to want to take no for an answer on public testimony to rebut Hutchinson.