Explosive testimony by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide, has raised questions about President Donald J. Trump's actions on the day of the Capitol riot.
Soon after his speech on the Ellipse ended on January 6, 2021, President Donald Trump stepped into the back of a black Suburban bearing the presidential seal.
What happened next has become a matter of intense debate after explosive testimony on Tuesday by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide who said Trump became enraged when his security detail refused to take him to the Capitol.
Speaking before the House committee investigating the attack, Hutchinson said she had been told by Anthony M. Ornato, a deputy White House chief of staff, that Trump tried to grab the wheel of his vehicle when he was told he could not go to the Capitol to join his supporters. Hutchinson also said Ornato told her the president "lunged" at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel.
Hutchinson made clear in her public testimony that she did not have direct knowledge of the incident, but that Ornato recounted it to her with Engel present in the room. It remains unclear what, if anything, the committee did to corroborate it.
Secret Service officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, disputed her account.
But the officials did say Engel, Ornato and the driver of the Suburban are prepared to confirm to the committee another damning finding from Hutchinson's testimony: that Trump demanded his agents bring him to the Capitol so he could join his supporters, even after they emphasised the dangerous scene playing out there.
The willingness of the agents to provide potentially critical details about the person they were protecting marks a rare turn for an agency that has historically prioritised the secrecy of presidents, even in the face of investigations.
On Wednesday, Jody Hunt, an attorney for Hutchinson, said his client "stands by all of the testimony she provided yesterday, under oath" and he challenged others who know of Trump's actions during the ride to come forward to the committee.
"Those with knowledge of the episode also should testify under oath," he said.
In an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd, committee member Representative Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said Ornato "did not have as clear of memories from this period of time as I would say Ms. Hutchinson did."
Asked if the panel had evidence to corroborate Hutchinson's claims, Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, said on Tuesday that Hutchinson's testimony was itself "the evidence" he was aware of. "I'm not aware of anything that contradicts the account that she just gave," he said.
Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesperson for the Secret Service, said the committee did not contact the agency about Hutchinson's account of Trump's ride from the Ellipse to the White House before her testimony.
Ornato, who was the head of Trump's Secret Service detail before being made deputy chief of staff, and Engel provided testimony to the committee before Hutchinson appeared, but they are willing to do so again, a Secret Service official said.
Trump's allies are using the dispute over what happened in the presidential vehicle to call into question the credibility of Hutchinson's testimony as a whole, which painted a portrait of a president who disregarded threats of violence from his own supporters, sympathised with those who wanted to "hang" the vice president and wanted to join the crowd that went on to attack on the Capitol.
The dispute also highlights Trump's relationship with his Secret Service detail, which was unlike that of most previous presidents. Agents were seen as more overtly supportive and admiring of Trump than they had been under any other modern president, according to people who have spent time in the White House during multiple administrations, and Trump worked to build loyalty among them.
While other presidents came to favour the head of their detail and sometimes ensured they were promoted within the service, even at times appointing them as director of the agency, Trump sought to make his lead agent part of his personal political team. In naming Ornato deputy White House chief of staff, Trump raised eyebrows among traditionalists who saw that as inappropriate.
For generations, agents generally tried to maintain studious neutrality under Republican and Democratic presidents, determined to be seen as protectors of the office regardless of who occupied it. Agents were known to like certain presidents more than others — George H.W. Bush was often described as a favourite, while many were reportedly not fond of Bill Clinton and especially Hillary Clinton — but they always insisted they were not part of the political team.
The murky nexus between presidents and their protectors was pierced during the Clinton years when Ken Starr, the independent counsel, subpoenaed agents and uniformed officers to testify about the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern. The Secret Service fought the subpoenas vigorously all the way up to the Supreme Court, maintaining that disclosure of what agents see and hear while protecting a president would shatter the bond of trust and prompt future chief executives to keep their guardians at an arm's length, increasing the potential risk. But the justices rejected the argument, finding no law authorising agents to resist legal orders to testify.
That precedent paved the way for the Jan. 6 committee to compel Trump's agents to testify and set a precedent in case they eventually do return to the panel to discuss what happened in the vehicle on the day of the Capitol attack. That puts the service in an exceedingly uncomfortable position, whether the agents effectively come to the political defence of a president they had protected physically or provide information that could be damaging to him.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Maggie Haberman
Photographs by: Pete Marovich
© 2022 THE NEW YORK TIMES