How the Secret Service Handling of Jan. 6 Looks to a Former Agent

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo credit: ROD LAMKEY - Getty Images
Photo credit: ROD LAMKEY - Getty Images

Since the most recent hearing of the January 6 Committee, a lot of talk has focused on new revelations about Vice President Mike Pence's Secret Service detail—namely, that they were concerned enough while holed up with him inside a Capitol under mob attack that they tried to get in contact with their families to say goodbye. But the role of the Secret Service more generally through those fateful days came under the microscope last week with revelations that the agency has failed to produce text records from January 5 and 6, telling the committee that they were lost in a reset of agency systems. There's also been renewed focus on an agent named Anthony Ornato, who in an unprecedented development transitioned from Trump's security detail to a political role in the White House as deputy chief of staff for operations.

Jim Helminski was with the Secret Service for the better part of three decades, including as special agent in charge of then-Vice President Joe Biden’s protective detail and as deputy assistant director, where he oversaw all 42 domestic field offices. We asked him what exactly he thought was going on here. In a conversation edited below for length and clarity, Helminski offered his view on how Ornato's elevation could have affected how the Service navigated situations like January 6, the delicate balance agents must strike between the personal relationships they have with protectees and their professional duty, and the prospect that at a key juncture in American history, the service had become politically compromised.

Have you ever heard of someone moving from the White House detail to a political position in the White House, one day to the next?

No. I was with the Secret Service for 27 years. I was on both Democratic and Republican administrations, I was a supervisor on presidential details, primary supervisor on [then-Vice President] Biden's detail. This was never even thought of or considered in any way, shape or form. It's just unethical and totally unheard of. It politicizes the agency. When you take somebody who's a deputy chief of staff—if this was an organizational chart, that person would have more influence than the director of the U.S. Secret Service. And just the whole Lafayette Park incident is a prime example of that influence. That was not a stellar moment for the U.S. Secret Service.

In terms of that org chart, Ornato was deputy chief of staff for operations [as of December 2019]. In the chain of command, does he have any power over the Secret Service?

Not in an official chart. But when it comes to the Secret Service and the White House staff, it becomes a negotiation point of what can be done in a responsible security manner for the president of the United States. And typically, when I was there, you would go to the chief of staff and you would discuss upcoming trips and how they relate to security, what's wise to do, what's not wise to do. Well, if you bring somebody over like Tony Ornato—he wasn’t brought over there because of his political acumen. People who get those positions [normally] have been in politics for a significant period of time, so the only plausible explanation for him to be part of the White House staff at that level is to influence the U.S. Secret Service.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - Getty Images
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - Getty Images

Did Ornato ever leave the Secret Service when he took the White House job?

Simultaneously, he was doing both. So he didn't lose those Secret Service, law enforcement, federal retirement benefits. [Otherwise] he would be collecting a retirement, but it wouldn't be at the law enforcement level. There's a vast difference between a regular employee in the federal government and law enforcement employee in the federal government.

When he left there, he went back to the Secret Service at a promoted position, assistant director. It's a pretty high-level position in the U.S. Secret Service. Of course, that was done by the director, Jim Murray, who—remember, both of these people are New York guys. The president, Trump, was a New York guy. He was looking for his people. That's my assumption.

The Secret Service did not respond to a request for comment on whether Ornato's elevation to White House deputy chief of staff could represent a politicization of the Service and potentially an ethical breach; whether he was still an employee of the Secret Service while simultaneously serving as a White House political appointee; or to confirm that Murray approved this arrangement and/or Ornato's full-time return to the Service.

I was going to ask you about that car ride on January 6. Are you surprised by anything you've heard about the Secret Service's activities that day?

My understanding of that whole scenario is that after his speech at the Ellipse, [Trump] wanted them to go to the Capitol. There was never an official movement to the Capitol. The police assets were never in place, the assets at the Capitol were never in place, and it would've become an off-the-record movement. We're able to put up a very robust presence very quickly, but it's not the full bubble. And the whole scenario, the way it was created, that wasn't plausible. The president announced that he wanted to go up there, and you had a riot going on right then and there. They had to put Pence in a secure location. You had Vice President-elect Harris, who'd just driven past a pipe bomb, standing by at the DNC. It would've been insane.

This seems to line up with the January 6 Committee's account, where Trump planned in advance to tell people to march on the Capitol but mostly kept it under wraps until he did it "off-the-cuff" himself in the speech.

You could look at this multiple ways. I think Secret Service had an idea [of what was going to happen]. I’m sure they had an idea. But everybody's intent at that point—except for Trump—was to keep Trump away from the Capitol. And probably one way of doing that was just not to plan for it. Now, Trump, on the other hand, goes, "Well, I don't have to worry about this because I already co-opted the Secret Service. I've got my New York field office guys in place, I've got Ornato, I've got Murray. I just tell them what I want to do.” Obviously, I'm putting thoughts into his head. But it seems extremely plausible that it's a scenario where, "I've co-opted the Secret Service, I marginalized their management. I could just tell them what I want and they'll do it."

Of course, then you've got the head of the Secret Service presidential detail, Bobby Engel, who's sitting in that right front seat, who turned around and said, "No, we're not going there." And that was his duty that day, that's what he needed to do. Then after that scenario, he meets with Tony Ornato to say, "Hey, let me tell you what just happened in the limo."

But now they deny that account, right? Or they at least said that they would deny it.

They said they deny it, but there's too much out there now. You got Cassidy Hutchinson who goes up there and testifies that, "Hey, I see Tony Ornato in the West Wing..." I used to be a polygraph examiner. She describes this thing in such detail that you would have to be a Meryl Streep to be able to pretend the way she did.

And she's under oath, and they aren't.

And she's under oath. And that's the other thing, if you really want to know what's in those text messages: It's okay if you've lost them, you've got corroborating text messages from other people. I'm sure they text outside of their bubble. They probably use their own personal phones for texting. Just bring them up there under oath, and they're going to have to think twice about whether they’re going to lie or not.

The Homeland Security inspector general is now looking into those text deletions. I’ve seen you suggest this is a question of either incompetence or malice.

The [Office of the Inspector General] is asking for the text messages of 5th and 6th—emails, text messages, any electronic correspondence. Secret Service blows him off in multiple ways. "We don't have it. If we do have it, it's got to go to DHS for our attorney review." He finally gets disgruntled with the whole scenario and goes up to the January 6 committee. The committee then tells the Secret Service that they want to have all the text messages that you're supposed to provide for the OIG. Secret Service comes back and says they've been deleted as part of the whole technology refresh.

I used to be the special agent in charge in Seattle. I ran a large electronic crimes office, and I know the capabilities of the Secret Service. So when you do say that, it's laughable, and it has to be almost intentional to not still have your backups. And there are backups. I've been involved with these things on an email side, and from the emails that we had to turn over back then, they were pulling them off the servers. But what Secret Service ended up doing was notifying individuals that, "Hey, remember the [Federal Records] Act. We're going to want you to upload these text messages." And the only thing that they get is one text message, one text message. That's almost an insult.

Almost worse than none.

Yeah, it's worse than none. Instead of saying we can do it, it’s, "You know what? We're not going to."

Photo credit: STEFANI REYNOLDS - Getty Images
Photo credit: STEFANI REYNOLDS - Getty Images

In general, you would hope that the Secret Service could keep track of these records. But if there's one day on which you would think they would prioritize preserving records, it would be January 6.

Well, that comes down to my line of, you got to choose between you're either malevolent or inept. And if I'm going to have that choice, it comes down to inept. Because now you're starting to talk about the criminality of individual upper-management people intentionally getting rid of evidence, destroying evidence, misuse of the government communication devices. This goes pretty deep.

I feel like it's probably common that officials, they get to know people on their Secret Service detail. They probably want them to stick around because they know and trust them. How do you keep that line between having a good rapport with the person you're protecting while balancing the obligations and the duty of your job?

Well, frankly, we've been doing it since 1901, since McKinley was assassinated. Every director I know, they do have a personal relationship of some sort with the president, and you can't help it. You're on the phone with the president, you have discussions about his family. I used to run presidential logistics, and I had a relationship with George Bush that dealt with his daughters because they were 18, 19, and of course they were going through growing pains, and that's a tough scenario for a young woman to be in. But when you establish these relationships, you as the individual, and you as the protectee, you have to understand your boundaries. And it's been my experience, again, working with both Republican and Democrats, that line has never been crossed until now.

It's extraordinary, and it's almost to the point where it's unbelievable, like it's a novel. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy person, because I almost feel like I am in the way I'm doing this, but the whole thing stinks.

Do you have confidence that Pence's detail on January 6 were just trying to protect him? There's talk about what Keith Kellogg, Pence's national security advisor, said to Ornato, like, "Don't put him in the car. I know you guys will take him to Alaska." I read that as "you guys are overprotective," but some people see it as a little more sinister.

If we were going to take him to a safe, secure spot, we would have either gone back to the White House or the vice presidential residence, the Naval Observatory. But I have confidence that was the duty of the agent in charge that day. You've got a lot of things up in the air on how to deal with protecting him, and probably the best call at that point was to keep him there in the secure location at the Capitol. That was probably what I would've done. And effectively what that does, it doesn't provide Trump what he wants. He wants Pence out of there, so he would be able to go forth with putting in those fake electors.

Or at least delay it long enough to "send it back to the states."

Absolutely. Right. It would put it right into the next phase, right?

How can the Service be shored up?

What you need to do is put somebody in there, a former individual that knows the Secret Service inside and out, has institutional knowledge of the Secret Service, and doesn't care about the next big paying job. Because you see where Jim Murray's going to, right? He's going to Snapchat*, which deletes messages after you use them, right? It's ironic.

But can it be fixed? Yeah. It needs to be fixed by bringing somebody who's willing to go there and not worry about being fired and not be under the thumb of the White House. It's always a negotiation point with them, but we see things differently than they do. They try to get the president out in front of as many people as we can; we try to constrict that ability for public access. So it becomes a negotiation point, and it's a serious one. We were put in there to preserve the continuity of government.

*Murray will leave the Secret Service on July 30, the Washington Post has reported, to take a position as chief security officer at Snapchat.

You Might Also Like