The U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol featured Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony this week to set up its future hearings, which are set to resume after the Fourth of July holiday break.
1. Anthony Ornato
Nobody emerged as so central a player in Hutchinson’s testimony as Anthony Ornato, the Secret Service agent who was detailed to the White House as deputy chief of staff for operations.
Much has been written about Hutchinson’s reportedly disputed testimony that Ornato described an altercation between fellow Secret Service agent Bobby Engel and Trump in the presidential vehicle, after President Donald Trump became “irate” that he wasn’t allowed to go to the Capitol. Anonymous sources have said Ornato disputes that the altercation happened and that he told Hutchinson such a story.
Certainly, that would be important when it comes to witness credibility — for both Hutchinson and Ornato.
But more crucial is another portion of Hutchinson’s testimony. She said that Ornato informed White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows the morning of Jan. 6 that Trump’s rallygoers had weapons, and that Ornato told her that he’d also informed Trump. Both alleged conversations came before Trump directed the crowd to the Capitol anyway.
There have been no reports, notably, that Ornato disputes this portion of Hutchinson’s testimony. The content of the warning to Trump will be vital to learn more about, particularly given that Hutchinson described hearing about it secondhand from Ornato.
Also important would be to learn from Ornato what happened with Vice President Mike Pence that day. A Jan. 6 committee member, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), has gestured to the idea that Pence didn’t want to evacuate the Capitol during the riot because “he knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do.”
The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker reported in their book last year that Ornato told senior White House official Keith Kellogg that agents planned to evacuate Pence, a plan Kellogg rejected. Ornato denied that conversation. But Politico’s Kyle Cheney now reports Ornato told the Jan. 6 committee in an interview that he incorrectly told Meadows that Pence had been evacuated already when Trump tweeted attacking Pence at 2:24 p.m.
Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told me in April that Ornato “had absolutely no involvement in vice-presidential movements or operations on Jan. 6, 2021.” Guglielmi stood by that Friday, saying Ornato would have been briefed on Pence’s movements but wasn’t in a decision-making role.
Certainly, getting further clarity on Ornato’s warning about armed rallygoers the morning of Jan. 6 and on what he learned about the effort to potentially remove Pence seem vitally important.
2. Robert Engel
Some former White House aides-turned-critics of Trump have suggested Ornato himself has credibility problems. (Ornato has repeatedly denied key White House conversations.)
The good news is we don’t have to rely on Hutchinson’s and Ornato’s words alone. That’s because fellow Secret Service agent Robert Engel was present for an alleged conversation about the altercation. Hutchinson said that Engel “did not correct or disagree with any part of the story.”
Engel has testified to the committee, but before Hutchinson described this scene. And Guglielmi said this week that the committee didn’t reach out to corroborate Hutchinson’s story before airing it Tuesday.
Again, the altercation in the presidential vehicle isn’t particularly pivotal when it comes to whether what happened on Jan. 6 was criminal; we already know Trump really wanted to go to the Capitol. But it would help establish witness credibility.
Since all we have so far are anonymous indications that both he and Ornato might dispute portions of Hutchinson’s testimony, the wording they choose — and their being under oath — will be key. Specifically, is it “I don’t recall that conversation,” or is it “It never happened"?
3. Pat Cipollone
What Hutchinson said about the White House counsel, while not as vivid, might ultimately be the most important aspect of her testimony: It could drive home key aspects of the committee’s case that Trump and Co. knew what they were doing was illegal.
Specifically, Hutchinson testified that Cipollone had such severe misgivings about Trump’s idea to march to the Capitol that he warned the morning of Jan. 6 that it would lead to criminal charges.
“Mr. Cipollone said something to the effect of, ‘Please, make sure we don’t go up to the Capitol, Cassidy. Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen,' ” said Hutchinson.
Hutchinson went on to say that Cipollone outlined an eerily prescient list of potential crimes: obstruction of justice, “defrauding the electoral count” and inciting a riot. Trump was impeached over the last one. The first two are essentially the crime the Jan. 6 committee has zeroed in on, and which a judge suggested Trump and his lawyer John Eastman likely violated.
Of particular importance would be precisely why Cipollone allegedly worried so explicitly about inciting a riot and allegedly was so convinced the march would result in obstructing Congress’s actions that day. Both would be suggestive of real concerns — in advance — about events turning violent. And combined with the testimony about Trump directing supporters to the Capitol even after learning they had weapons, it would reinforce that the insurrection was a predictable and even predicted outcome.
(Cipollone also reportedly warned Trump about legal exposure if he didn’t quell the riot once it began. But placing those warnings before the insurrection would be hugely significant.)
Also relevant is what Cipollone and others in the White House Counsel’s Office said about the plot to have Pence overturn the election. In previously released testimony, Hutchinson said that as early as the first half of December, the counsel’s office said the idea to have alternate electors meet and cast votes for Trump in key states was not, in Hutchinson’s words, “legally sound.”
Cipollone has resisted testifying to the committee, citing privilege concerns. But the committee has now subpoenaed him, and he’s reportedly in talks about whether he’ll testify.
4. John Ratcliffe
Perhaps no potentially significant witness got as lost in the shuffle after Hutchinson’s testimony as John Ratcliffe, Trump’s director of national intelligence. Indeed, according to Hutchinson, Ratcliffe also alluded to what Cipollone and others were worried about: the prospect of Jan. 6 going sideways.
“My understanding was Director Ratcliffe didn’t want much to do with the post-election period,” she said. She added that “Ratcliffe felt that it wasn’t something that the White House should be pursuing, it was dangerous for the president’s legacy. He had expressed to me that he was concerned that it could spiral out of control and potentially be dangerous either for our democracy or the way that things were going for the 6th.”
Compared to the Cipillone example, this includes less detail about what, specifically, Ratcliffe feared; it’s not totally clear that he feared actual violence. But notably, Hutchinson places this conversation before her conversation with Cipollone. She also places it before Meadows having told her, in early January, that “things might get real, real bad on Jan. 6.”
It suggests that at least one high-ranking official was worried about a chaotic Jan. 6, a week or more beforehand — and crucially, from someone in tune with U.S. intelligence. Getting specificity on what both Meadows and Ratcliffe were worried about would be important, but Meadows apparently isn’t testifying.