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What’s going on with all the missing Jan. 6 texts

Members of the United States Secret Service stand guard as Marine One carrying President Donald Trump lifts off from the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 12, 2019, in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

After a summer of House committee hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, there are still enduring mysteries about how the day itself unfolded:

Why did it take hours for the National Guard to respond to the violence at the Capitol? And did President Donald Trump want to join insurrectionists at the Capitol so badly that he physically wrestled his Secret Service agent to take him there? And if so, what did the Secret Service do about it?

“I think that’s the biggest remaining mystery,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Jan. 6 committee, recently said of how the Secret Service responded to Trump.

But some possibly valuable evidence is missing: text messages from the Secret Service and top security and military officials in the Trump administration.

We don’t know what’s in these missing text messages — nor do we know why they’re missing. Here’s what we do know about this evolving story.

Okay, whose texts are missing?

  • Texts of Secret Service agents, including those who were on the ground with Trump the day of the attack and their director at the time.
  • Texts of top officials at the agency that oversees the Secret Service — the Department of Homeland Security. That includes the No. 1 and No. 2 at the agency, Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli. (Wolf says that he returned his equipment to the department with its data intact, and complied with all rules about retention.)
  • Texts from top military leaders, including the No. 1 at the Defense Department, Chris Miller, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

Why are they missing?

We don’t know. The agencies involved said there is a simple explanation: a routine agencywide reset of government phones, ahead of the new administration coming in.

But in the case of the Secret Service, agents were supposed to upload texts involving government business to a server before wiping their phones in mid-January 2021. Many didn’t, The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Maria Sacchetti reported.

And in the case of the Defense Department, days after the attack, a watchdog group filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking it to preserve its records. “Even at that point, it was apparent that those messages could have been important,” said Clark Pettig, spokesperson for the group American Oversight.

The Pentagon deleted texts of top military leaders — including ones deciding whether and when to send troops to the Capitol — days after that request was filed. Meaning, these messages were wiped even while there was a pending legal request to preserve them. (A defense official told The Post that these deletions were standard and, “Nobody was trying to hide or conceal anything.”)

The watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security, Joseph V. Cuffari, is investigating the missing Secret Service and Homeland security texts. But he’s a Trump appointee who has blocked previous investigations of the Trump administration, and now Democrats on the congressional Jan. 6 committee say he knew about the missing Secret Service texts for months and didn’t tell them. Cuffari is now being investigated himself for his alleged partisan conduct, and Republican senators are backing him, reports The Post’s Lisa Rein.

Why is this suspicious?

The fact the texts are missing from multiple defense and law-enforcement agencies after a political event as unprecedented as Jan. 6 — one that directly involved all these agencies — raises suspicions.

“The fact this appears to have been a wider problem is concerning. We don’t know what happened or why,” Pettig said. “But it’s a significant number of potentially important records from Jan. 6 that apparently don’t exist anymore. And it should have been apparent to anyone that records from that day would be important.”

Outside cybersecurity experts and former government officials told The Post’s Drew Harwell, Will Oremus and Joseph Menn that these agencies never should have lost the text messages when they reset government phones; it’s a simple process, and it should have been relatively easy and a no-brainer to preserve messages from the day of the attack.

“It’s like we have a 9/11 attack and air traffic control wipes its records,” Paul Rosenzweig, a former Homeland security official under George W. Bush, told them.

“There is plenty of smoke,” said Meredith McGehee, an ethics expert who led the bipartisan watchdog group Issue One. “And when there is smoke like that, and you have this historic moment in which a former president seemed to be conspiring to prevent the duly elected president from taking office, then you got a problem.”

What information is missing?

We don’t know, because it’s gone. The Secret Service in particular has said it can’t recover the missing texts. And with it goes any corroborating evidence about what happened that day. For example, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified in the Jan. 6 congressional investigation that Trump tried to physically push his Secret Service agent to help him join protesters at the Capitol. But she said she was told about this afterward, and didn’t see it firsthand; others denied this occurred. So it’s possible that texts from agents on the ground that day, responding to what was happening in real time, could shed light on moments like that.

Separately, over at the Pentagon, it’s still murky why it took so long for the military to organize a response — National Guard troops weren’t sent until the attack had been underway for hours. It’s not clear if military leaders disagreed about how to respond, or hesitated to respond with force or what their reasons were. Either way, it’s possible that the missing text messages could fill in our understanding of why the response unfolded so slowly.

We might never know whether this was something malicious or an innocent tech issue.

Other investigations into Jan. 6 have underscored how important documents, even seemingly minor ones, can be. In particular, the Jan. 6 committee revealed in its hearings a previously-unknown draft tweet from Trump, which indicated that the former president had seen it (though ultimately didn’t send it). It encouraged people to march to the Capitol, suggesting that urging protesters to do so in that Jan. 6 speech may not have been spontaneous on Trump’s part.

The biggest moments from a summer of Jan. 6 hearings

“As we’ve seen from the past year-and-a-half of investigations,” Pettig said, the minute-by-minute timeline matters. It’s the classic question of: Who knew what, and when did they know it?”