(The Hill) — The Secret Service is doubling down on its denial of an alleged altercation between former President Donald Trump and his security detail on Jan. 6 of last year, providing a rare defense of Trump’s actions that day amid mounting evidence that he tried to orchestrate a coup from the White House.
The extraordinary anecdote of a clash in the presidential SUV — recounted last week in public testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson — has received outsized attention in the days since then.
The narrative has sparked a quick denial from the agents involved; prompted Trump loyalists to attack Hutchinson’s broader credibility; and frustrated Trump critics who want to focus on the bigger picture, not least of all Trump’s desire to join hundreds of supporters in marching on the Capitol to contest his election defeat.
Through back-channels, the Secret Service has confirmed Trump’s eagerness to join the protestors at the Capitol, a number of whom would go on to storm the building in a violent effort to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.
“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.”
In denying Hutchinson’s second-hand account, the traditionally taciturn Secret Service has stepped into a firestorm of political controversy, lending ammunition to Trump’s allies, who are playing up the dispute in an effort to discredit all of Hutchinson’s testimony.
“The sham Committee’s star witness is already discredited less than 24 hours after her testimony,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “It was all hearsay.”
Yet in the context of the broader charges accumulating against Trump — including the explosive allegation that he sent an armed crowd to the Capitol to block the peaceful transfer of power — the Secret Service dispute is largely a diversion.
“It’s really important to remember for people to focus on what is legally significant, and not get distracted by the drama of stories about things like throwing plates of ketchup or whether the former president actually tried to grab the steering wheel and assault the head of the Secret Service crew,” said Catherine Ross, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University Law School.
“None of that is material to the question of whether he should be indicted and whether he could be convicted.”
Hutchinson is not the only one under scrutiny. In the days since her testimony, a number of Republicans have also emerged to question the credibility of Ornato.
One Pence official pointed to Ornato refuting a Washington Post account of a conversation in which Pence National Security Advisor Keith Kellogg warned against Ornato acting to remove the vice president from the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“Those of us who worked w/ Tony know where his loyalties lie,” Olivia Troye, a former Pence advisor and high-profile critic of Trump, wrote in sharing the article. “He should testify under oath.”
Alyssa Farah, a former White House director of strategic communications, also complained that Ornato denied a conversation in which she said she urged him to warn the press before chemical irritants were used to clear a park near the White House in 2020.
“There seems to be a major thread here… Tony Ornato likes to lie,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) one of two Republican members of the committee, said, pointing to Farah’s tweet.
Members of the select committee are also downplaying the disagreement over the SUV episode, racing to Hutchinson’s defense and pointing to the numerous, damning first-hand accounts she also delivered during last week’s hearing.
“The Committee is not going to stand by and watch her character be assassinated by anonymous sources and by men who are claiming executive privilege,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice-chair of the select committee, told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl over the weekend. “And so we look forward very much to additional testimony under oath on a whole range of issues.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another member of the investigative panel, delivered a similar message.
“She has nothing to gain by stepping forward and telling the truth. And Trump World has everything to lose by the truth,” Lofren told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Lofgren said Ornato has already talked to the committee behind closed doors under oath. And “if he wants to come back and clarify his prior information, he will also be under oath.”
“I think it’s a mistake to focus on whether or not he was lying to Ms. Hutchinson when he relayed that story,” she quickly added. “The fact is the president knew his crowd was armed.”
The attacks on Hutchinson, some coming from lawmakers who are themselves implicated in the investigation, have energized Trump loyalists amid gripes from the former president that the Republicans’ decision to boycott the probe has left Trump with no defenders on the select committee.
Banks had been tapped by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to serve as the ranking member of the investigative panel. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) refused to seat him — along with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — after Banks vowed to use the position to investigate Biden’s response to the Capitol attack. Biden was not president at the time.
In response to Pelosi, McCarthy pulled all five of his GOP picks from the panel, allowing the Democrats’ nine selections — all of them fierce Trump critics — to run the show unimpeded.
“This is the Russia hoax playbook,” said Banks. “Democrats’ media allies are simply repeating their outrageous and evidence-free accusations.”
Hutchinson’s legal team has said she stands by her account, emphasizing that she provided testimony under oath – four times behind closed doors, and then again publicly last week.
“Ms. Hutchinson testified, under oath, and recounted what she was told,” her lawyer, Jody Hunt, wrote on Twitter last week. “Those with knowledge of the episode also should testify under oath.”