Generally speaking, Secret Service agents aren’t supposed to be in the news. But Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony on Tuesday has thrust them into it again. An agent who also served as Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Anthony M. Ornato, reportedly disputes Hutchinson’s testimony.
And, very notably, this is hardly the first time Ornato has denied an account of a key White House conversation. It’s now happened in at least three high-profile occasions. And that calls his denials into question, say former Trump aides who stand by Hutchinson. One of them flat-out said Ornato lied in one of his previous denials. But another top White House aide involved in a previously disputed conversation is vouching for Ornato.
Let’s break down what happened in each case.
At issue today is whether Ornato told Hutchinson about an altercation involving Trump in a presidential vehicle on Jan. 6. Hutchinson said Ornato described Trump as being “irate” at not being able to go to the Capitol. She said Ornato said Trump grabbed at the steering wheel and lunged at another agent. Anonymous sources close to Ornato initially said he denies that scene happened. When it was noted that Hutchinson had merely relayed what Ornato allegedly told her — rather than saying she witnessed it herself — they clarified that he denies he told her such a thing, too.
The alleged episode, though provocative, is perhaps less important when it comes to the Jan. 6 committee’s efforts to prove Trump committed a crime, especially compared to another part of Hutchinson’s testimony: that Ornato told her that he had told Trump that Jan. 6 rallygoers had weapons — before Trump told them to march to the Capitol anyway. (Ornato, importantly, hasn’t denied this.) But it is relevant when it comes to Hutchinson’s credibility.
In light of the dispute, former White House aides-turned-Trump critics pointed to a couple of other instances in which Ornato denied conversations he would have been privy to.
One came from a book by The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker, “I Alone Can Fix It.” They reported Ornato told a senior White House official, Keith Kellogg, during the Capitol riot that agents were going to move Vice President Mike Pence to Joint Base Andrews. Kellogg rejected this:
“You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg said. “Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.”Pence had made clear to [the lead agent on Pence’s security detail Tim] Giebels the level of his determination and Kellogg said there was no changing it.“He’s going to stay there,” Kellogg told Ornato. “If he has to wait there all night, he’s going to do it.”
But, through a spokesman, Ornato denied the conversation took place.
In April, a Secret Service spokesman expanded on the denial. Anthony Guglielmi told me that Ornato also “had absolutely no involvement in vice-presidential movements or operations on January 6, 2021.” That’s an extremely broad denial — and one that the Jan. 6 committee would surely be interested in during any testimony from Ornato.
Former Pence aide Olivia Troye on Wednesday suggested Ornato’s denial of multiple reported conversations calls those denials into question. “Those of us who worked w/ Tony know where his loyalties lie,” she said.
In response, fellow former White House aide Alyssa Farah Griffin pointed to a third instance — one in which she said Ornato outright lied.
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
This instance concerns a conversation detailed in New York Times reporter Michael C. Bender’s book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election.” In the book, he describes a scene from before the infamous 2020 removal of Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Square, near the White House. The square was cleared before Trump strode to a church for a photo op.
Bender writes that Farah advised White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that hastily clearing the square could get messy if reporters were in the mix — and that those clearing it should watch out for those with press credentials.
Meadows reportedly responded: “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
Farah said Thursday that Ornato “lied about me too” when it came to that episode. She told The Washington Post that she had pointed reporters looking to confirm the story to Ornato, who was present for the conversation with Meadows. But she said the reporters told her Ornato denied it.
The Secret Service has yet to respond to a request for comment from Ornato. But one key White House figure is now vouching for him: Kellogg.
Kellogg said Thursday that Ornato was “trusted” and that, “I would take his sworn testimony to the bank.”
Regarding 6 January and for the record. I was privileged to know USSS Special Agent in Charge Tony Ornato. Like all USSS Agents, he was highly professional, circumspect in everyday action and trusted. I would take his sworn testimony to the bank.— Keith Kellogg (@generalkellogg) June 30, 2022
Ornato, viewed by many in the White House as a consummate Trump loyalist, had an unprecedented setup under which he served as deputy White House chief of staff — essentially, a political aide — while also being detailed to the White House and thus having oversight duties.
Amid scrutiny of what happened Jan. 6, those roles are increasingly clashing.