Jan. 6 committee rallies around Hutchinson amid Trump World onslaught

·6 min read

The Jan. 6 select committee is raising sharp doubts about the credibility of Tony Ornato, a former Trump White House aide who played a featured role in this week's explosive testimony by onetime colleague Cassidy Hutchinson.

Ornato, a Secret Service official who served a year as a political appointee in Trump’s White House, has reportedly signaled a willingness to contradict a high-profile element of Hutchinson's testimony: that Ornato told her former President Donald Trump lunged toward the head of his detail on Jan. 6, 2021, in a push to be driven to the Capitol and join his supporters trying to disrupt Congress.

But several members of the select panel say Ornato, not Hutchinson, is the one with credibility problems — and have moved to publicly preempt any doubts he might raise.

“There seems to be a major thread here… Tony Ornato likes to lie,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted Thursday after another former Trump White House official, Alyssa Farah, questioned Ornato's honesty.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), another Jan. 6 committee member, said in a Wednesday interview with NBC that Ornato “did not have as clear of memories from this period of time” as Hutchinson did.

Their comments, echoed by other select panel lawmakers and aides, came as the committee began rallying around Hutchinson after her testimony painted a picture of an out-of-control Trump that raised new questions about his culpability for the events of Jan. 6.

Her appearance also drew intense backlash from Trump and his allies. And one of them, former Trump White House aide Keith Kellogg, said Ornato’s sworn testimony should be trusted.

“Like all USSS Agents, he was highly professional, circumspect in everyday action and trusted,” tweeted Kellogg, who met with investigators in December. “I would take his sworn testimony to the bank.”

Ornato, a veteran Secret Service agent of more than two decades with stints in the presidential protection division under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was detailed to the White House by Trump in late 2019 and appointed deputy chief of staff, an unusual arrangement for a law enforcement official. He has interviewed twice with the select committee — once in January and once in March, according to two people familiar with his appearances.

In his January interview, according to a person who described the exchanges, Ornato recounted various recollections of Jan. 6, including several that drew skepticism from the committee. Among them:

— Ornato told the select panel that Trump may not have been aware then-Vice President Mike Pence was still inside the Capitol when he attacked Pence on Twitter at 2:24 p.m. on Jan. 6. That tweet came minutes after rioters had broken into the Capitol and, by many accounts from the scene, intensified the fury of the mob. Ornato told the committee he'd initially informed then-chief of staff Mark Meadows — incorrectly — that Pence had been evacuated from the Capitol to his residence at the time of that tweet. It’s unclear why Ornato initially believed Pence had been taken from the Capitol grounds or how long it took for the report to be corrected.

— The panel also asked Ornato about a 3:13 p.m. tweet from Trump on Jan. 6 asking rioters — who had violently attacked police for hours — to “remain peaceful.” Investigators asked whether he thought Trump should have issued a more forceful order for the rioters to go home. Ornato told the committee there was nothing more Trump, or anyone, could have done to call off the attack. A slew of other witnesses have delivered testimony at odds with Ornato's, contending Trump was in a unique position to persuade rioters to leave the Capitol as the siege dragged on.

The panel called Ornato back to supplement his testimony in March. It’s unclear what he discussed with investigators in his subsequent interview.

Ornato drew intense scrutiny this week after Hutchinson testified that he told her about Trump's behavior inside his presidential vehicle after addressing a “Stop the Steal” rally by his supporters on the morning of Jan. 6. Trump was intent on traveling to the Capitol to rally backers who were contesting the election results, Hutchinson recalled Ornato saying, and became enraged when the head of his Secret Service detail at the time told him they would be returning to the White House instead of joining the protest.

Hutchinson testified that Ornato told her Trump was so angry, he made a physical motion toward the steering wheel as well as the clavicle of his detail's chief.

Her secondhand account was one of several searing depictions she offered the committee of a president furious in his intent to subvert his loss to Joe Biden. Hutchinson also provided granular details about Trump’s pre-Jan. 6 meetings and efforts to overturn the election. She also testified that on the morning of Jan. 6, Trump knew some of his supporters were armed and intent on marching to the Capitol.

Hutchinson said Ornato had described the vehicle incident in a huddle with her and the head of Trump's detail, Robert Engel, after the rally. Engel, she said, did not contradict any aspect of Ornato's story at the time.

But within hours of her public testimony, reports emerged suggesting that Ornato and Engel were both willing to appear under oath and contradict Hutchinson’s account. Neither man has spoken publicly since Tuesday, but the promise of future contradictory testimony ignited a furor among Trump allies, who argued that it discredited Hutchinson’s entire appearance.

Other questions have also since emerged about Hutchinson’s testimony. A spokesperson for former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann indicated that Herschmann — not Hutchinson — wrote a note on Jan. 6 that reflected a proposed statement for Trump to deliver amid the riot, contrary to Hutchinson's account.

Hutchinson’s attorneys, Jody Hunt and William Jordan, say she stands by her sworn testimony.

A Secret Service spokesperson, Anthony Guglielmi, declined to respond to the details of Ornato’s January testimony or the criticisms select committee members have begun lodging against him.

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

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the select committee’s vice chair, did not criticize Ornato by name but broadly defended Hutchinson’s credibility during an interview Wednesday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl.

“I am absolutely confident in her credibility. I'm confident in her testimony,” Cheney said. “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.”

Betsy Woodruff Swan and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.