Don’t miss the point: Unpacking what’s critical in Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to Jan. 6 probe

Don’t miss the point: Unpacking what’s critical in Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to Jan. 6 probe

Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony was an arguable watershed moment for the Jan. 6 committee’s probe into the coup that investigators say former President Donald Trump nearly pulled off last year. 

For two hours, Hutchinson disclosed under oath some of the most striking and damning pieces of evidence yet aired out: It was a staggering account of a president with fading power seeking every avenue to retain it, constitutional oath and U.S. laws be damned. 

The details of her testimony also painted Trump and members of his administration, like her superior and Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, in a grim and potentially criminally liable light. 

Since then, there has been a huge amount of pushback against Hutchinson’s testimony challenging its veracity. From anonymous sources to members of the Secret Service and White House officials she explicitly named, the rush has been on to discredit her account. None of those attempts have yet taken place under oath however, and deserve for now to be weighed by the public with according scrutiny.

In the meantime, let’s unpack what’s happened so far and clarify some of the more important details Hutchinson exposed that are quickly being obscured by Trump spin. 

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First and perhaps most important is that Cassidy Hutchinson testified that Trump was aware those in the crowd near the White House and Capitol on Jan. 6 were armed.

Before Trump gave his speech at the Ellipse she said he demanded his supporters be allowed to stream inside a secure area so cameras would capture a larger-looking crowd. 

Now, in the months leading up to this moment, multiple intelligence agencies including the FBI and U.S. Secret Service had begun sharing open-source data with law enforcement about possible security threats on Jan. 6. 

The red flags had been waving wildly since at least November. 

For example, Oath Keeper ringleader Elmer Rhodes, now facing seditious conspiracy charges tied to Jan. 6, attended a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in November in northern Virginia, as noted by Just Security in a comprehensive timeline.

Rhodes streamed remarks where he told the audience that Trump’s allies “must declare that Joe Biden… is a usurper” and to be prepared to fight to keep Trump in office. Extremist militias and groups like the Three Percenters, Groypers, Oath Keepers, and Proud Boys showed up in huge numbers on Nov. 14. The rally ended with police officers injured, multiple arrests, and headlines splashed all over Washington.

The groups would return less than a month later for the “Million MAGA March” on Dec. 12, just two days before the Electoral College deadline for states to submit their slates of electors. Proud Boy ringleader Henry Tarrio posted a picture of himself at the White House on Parler that same day, though the Trump White House denied it was an official visit and said Tarrio was there as part of a public Christmas tour. 

GOP operative and Trump adviser Roger Stone addressed demonstrators ahead of the Million MAGA March at a nighttime rally on Dec. 11, telling a crowd: “They tell us this election is over. Nothing is over ‘til we say it is over. We will fight until the bitter end. We have an obligation to see that the rightful winner of the 2020 election is seated and that is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln, Donald J. Trump.” 

Stone was joined that night by Proud Boys Henry Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, and others like Infowars host Owen Shroyer who would later be charged with entering a restricted area on Capitol grounds. The morning of the Capitol assault, Stone was photographed outside of his D.C. hotel flanked by Oath Keepers. 

When Alabama Oath Keeper division leader Joshua James pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy charges in March that he faced alongside Rhodes, prosecutors said James served as a bodyguard to Stone.

Stone has not been charged with any crimes for Jan. 6, and has issued blanket denials about his relationship with the groups. Documentary footage shot by Danish filmmakers made public this spring, however, have shown James inside Stone’s hotel room in the hours before the attack, Stone texting with leaders of the extremist groups and later, strategizing a pardon proposal meant for those Trump allies who called to overturn the election. 

Like the rally before it, this one ended with violent clashes and social media lit up with calls from extremist groups far and wide to travel to D.C. on Jan. 6.

Less than a week later, the FBI shared a tip with U.S. Capitol Police after posts about killing “palace guards” at the Capitol began surfacing online.

More warnings came in every day from agencies like the U.S. Park Police, Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. Even the U.S. Postal Service by Dec. 22 had issued reports for an exceedingly high potential of violence on Jan. 6. 

By Jan. 2, intelligence analysts at the Department of Homeland Security learned that maps of the Capitol were circulating online, according to a report by that department’s inspector general.

Officials from the Department of Defense, FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service convened a meeting to discuss their concerns too and by Jan. 4, Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brian held a conference call with DHS and FEMA officials to weigh the possibility that protesters might target federal buildings within just 48 hours. 

Despite all of this, according to a Secret Service Protective Intelligence Brief, the agency found “no indication of civil disobedience” ahead.

On the eve of the attack, the FBI’s office in Norfolk, Virginia warned about chatter suggesting a coming “war” the next day. FBI Director Chris Wray would later tell members of Congress he did not receive this information until days after the insurrection. 

But Hutchinson testified privately to the committee in February and March, as well as during her sworn public testimony this week, that Meadows, as Trump’s right hand in the White House, received those warnings.

Hutchinson said that Anthony Ornato, Trump’s chief of operations in the White House, was the one who shared them with Meadows and the closer Jan. 6 came, the more Hutchinson said she heard words like “Proud Boys” or “Oath Keepers” thrown around the White House, too. Especially, she testified, when Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani was around. 

Select committee vice chair Liz Cheney this week highlighted emails sent by the Secret Service Intelligence Division to Ornato as well as to Robert Engel, the head of Trump’s Secret Service security detail.

The emails included warnings where people were asked to “Fight for Trump” and occupy buildings while others declared: “We need to flood the Capitpl building and show America and the senators and representatives inside voting that we won’t stand for election fraud.” 

A U.S. Capitol Police Bulletin that was shared with the White House was even more specific, noting that the president’s supporters were not interested in targeting counterprotesters but “rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th.” 

Astutely pointed out by independent journalist Marcy Wheeler on her blog Thursday is that Cheney specifically said Ornato and Engel received warnings “like those shown on the screen,” suggesting that other security warnings may have also been received by Ornato and Engel too. Those may have been classified and unable to be displayed during the public hearing.

Crucially, this intelligence sharing about threats of violence and, in particular, the wide array of warnings citing Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have not been disputed by Ornato or Engel.

What they and anonymous sources have disputed publicly so far is Hutchinson’s shocking account of Trump’s conduct in the minutes after the rally at the Ellipse. 

Hutchinson told investigators that on the afternoon of Jan. 6, it was Ornato who invited her into his office with Bobby Engel and asked her if she had heard what happened after Trump climbed into an armored SUV referred to as “The Beast.”

Hutchinson said Ornato told her Trump became irate and yelled at Engel.

Engel was sitting there  as Ornato told her, looking “somewhat discombobulated and somewhat lost,” Hutchinson recalled 

She testified that:

“Tony proceeded to tell me that when the president got in the Beast, he was under the impression from Meadows that the off-the-record movement to the Capitol was still possible and likely to happen but that Bobby had more information.”

“As the president got into the vehicle with Bobby, he thought they were going to the Capitol. When Bobby said ‘we’re not, we don’t have assets to do it, it’s not secure,’ the president had a very strong, very angry response to that. Tony described him as being irate and the president said something to the effect of ‘I’m the f-ing president take me up to the Capitol now’ to which Bobby responded, ‘Sir we have to go back to the West Wing.’”

“The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Engel grabbed his arm and said, ‘Sir you need to take your hand off the steering wheel. We’re going back to the West Wing.”

“Trump then used his free hand to lunge at Bobby Engel and when [Tony Ornato] had recounted this story to me, he had motioned towards his clavicle,” she said, gesturing towards her neck.

Engel, Hutchinson said, did not correct or disagree with Ornato’s retelling.

When Cheney asked Hutchinson if either Ornato or Engel had ever told her this recounting was untrue, she said they had not. 

Since the hearing, however, CNN reported that Ornato has denied through a Secret Service spokesperson that Trump grabbed at the steering wheel or lunged at Engel. Both Engel and Ornato have said they are willing to testify to this under oath.

The committee interviewed Ornato twice prior to Hutchinson’s hearing, including in January and again in March.

Ornato said at the time, according to Politico, that Trump might not have known for starters, that Pence was in the Capitol when he sent out a tweet attacking the vice president around 2:24 p.m. on Jan. 6. Ornato also said he told Meadows that Pence was removed from the Capitol even though Pence had not left the complex yet. Why Ornato said this is not yet clear. 

Ornato also reportedly told investigators on the probe that he felt Trump did everything he could do when he urged rioters at 3:13 PM to “remain peaceful” but did not expressly ask them to disperse. Trump also told the rioters, “we love you.”  

They had laid siege for hours at this point.

Ornato was handpicked by Trump to serve on his security detail to much-reported controversy: The Secret Service frowns on agents taking political White House positions.

But Secret Service director James Murray, Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig reported, approved the appointment and “with Trump’s urging.”

Leonnig wrote a book about the Secret Service that assessed, in part, what the agency looked like under Trump. Leonnig told MSNBC during a recent interview that there was a “very large contingent of Donald Trump’s detail who were personally cheering for [now-President Joe] Biden to fail.”

Some, she reported, even used their personal media accounts to “cheer on the insurrection and the individuals rioting up to the Capitol, as patriots.” 

“I’m not saying that Tony Ornato or Bobby Engel did that but they are viewed as being aligned with Donald Trump which cuts against them,” Leonnig said. 

Many inside the service have accused Ornato and Engel of being Trump’s “yes-men” and this also irritated agents, she added.

A USSS spokesman says: “I spoke to Mr. Ornato and we will share our first hand account with the Committee under oath and on the record. It’s not appropriate to make comments in the media before we have that chance to formally address the members of Congress.”

— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) June 30, 2022

Former national security adviser Keith Kellogg, who cooperated with a committee subpoena, threw his backing behind Ornato on Twitter Thursday, saying he would take Ornato’s “sworn testimony to the bank.”

Other questions have been raised about Ornato’s credibility under oath and on the record. In a book by New York Times reporter Michael Bender titled “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” Bender described Alyssa Farah, Trump’s communication director advising Meadows in 2020 that he should not hastily clear up Lafayette Square, where a mass of Black Lives Matter protesters had gathered. 

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Meadows allegedly told Farah. 

After Hutchinson’s hearing, Farah said Ornato “lied about me too” when she learned that reporters who interviewed Ornato told her he denied the episode happened that way. 

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

As for Bobby Engel, he privately met with investigators twice. During those meetings, Engel reportedly disclosed that he and Trump did have a dispute about where Trump should go following the speech.

Engel allegedly told Trump he would not take him, he said, and Trump insisted they go. Engel would not oblige. 

Engel’s alleged testimony would conflict with an account given by Meadows in his book, The Chief’s Chief, where Meadows described Trump’s clamoring to go to the Capitol after leaving the Ellipse as a metaphor because Trump, Meadows wrote, “knew as well as anyone that we couldn’t organize a trip on such short notice.” 

Hutchinson, however, testified that it was Meadows who “raised the prospect” of going to the Capitol at least once before Jan. 3.

Trump’s White House counsel Pat Cipollone approached her on Jan. 3rd and asked about Meadows bringing up taking Trump to the Capitol. He told her they needed to “make sure this doesn’t happen.” 

On the morning of the insurrection, Cipollone saw Hutchinson before Trump went to the rally at the Ellipse. She said Cipollone begged her to stay in touch and not to go to the Capitol.

“We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen,” Hutchinson recounted Cipollone’s warning. 

In this vein, when Hutchinson testified Tuesday, there was an important distinction she made about Trump’s movements that day. 

Hutchinson said Trump “kept mentioning the OTR, an off-the-record” movement to the Capitol.

For a president, there are two major ways daily events are categorized. There are scheduled items on the agenda where the president’s official movements are notated. This is done to coordinate the president’s calendar with the media, the Secret Service, and others. 

Then, there is an off-the-record movement, where only a small group of the president’s most trusted advisers or staff are made aware of his agenda or movements and, as Hutchinson testified Tuesday, an “OTR movement” can be pulled together with the necessary security measures in under an hour.

This is typically because those who would travel with the president in an off-the-record movement would not require added security review. 

“It’s a way to kind of circumvent having to release it to the press if that’s the goal of it or to not have as many security parameters in place ahead of time to make a movement happen,” Hutchinson said.

During his speech at the Ellipse, Trump said repeatedly that he would join demonstrators to march to the Capitol. But according to records kept by staff on the National Security Council and obtained by the committee, the council was scrambling to find “the best route now” for Trump.

“When President Trump left the Ellipse stage at 1:10 p.m., the staff knew that rioters had invaded the inaugural stage and Capitol Police were calling for all available officers to respond,” Cheney said Tuesday.

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy also heard Trump say he was heading to the Capitol during his speech and called Hutchinson not long after.

He sounded “rushed, but also frustrated and angry,” she told the committee this week. 

She was backstage and with all the noise around her, she couldn’t hear Trump say he was going to the Capitol.

McCarthy, she said, lashed out at her, asking why for an entire week, she told him the president wasn’t coming to the Capitol during the Joint Session. Hutchinson told McCarthy she wasn’t lying and that they were not going. 

But there was Trump, on stage, staying the opposite. 

Hutchinson said she then called Ornato to confirm they weren’t going and the two texted each other about it as well. She said she sent a text again to McCarthy but he didn’t reply. 

The committee showed just two text messages between Ornato and Hutchinson during the hearing on Tuesday.

In them, Hutchinson describes Trump as “furious” that members of the crowd—again, many of them armed—were not being waved into the secure area where cameras could better capture throngs of his supporters. 

A frustrated Ornato responded to the text: “He doesn’t get it that the people on the Monument side don’t want to come in. They can see from there and don’t have to go through [magnetometers].”

The texts here, like other records, appear to corroborate that Ornato understood the crowd was armed, that Trump wanted them there anyway, and that Trump did not care about the security threat they posed to him or anyone else, for that matter.

Additional hearings are coming in July and an exact schedule has not yet been determined.  

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