Former White House aide's account of Trump outburst gets fresh scrutiny

Ms Cassidy Hutchinson gave a portrait of a president callous to the dangers he was creating during his final weeks in office. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A former White House aide's account of then-President Donald Trump lunging for the steering wheel of his armoured vehicle is facing closer scrutiny a day after her vivid testimony to a House panel investigating the Capitol insurrection.

Mr Tony Ornato, a long-time Secret Service agent who was working at the time as a deputy chief of staff to Mr Trump, has told people that Ms Cassidy Hutchinson's account to the House committee isn't consistent with his understanding of the incident, according to a person familiar with Mr Ornato's denial who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That would contradict Ms Hutchinson's testimony on Tuesday (June 28) that Mr Ornato shared the account with her shortly after the motorcade returned to the White House on Jan 6, 2021 as a mob of Trump supporters was heading for the Capitol.

Mr Ornato and Mr Bobby Engel, a Secret Service agent who at the time headed Mr Trump's security detail and was in the vehicle, are willing to testify under oath that the description the committee heard isn't correct, the person said.

Mr Ornato and Mr Engel have said Mr Trump was upset by the Secret Service decision that he couldn't go to the Capitol for safety reasons and grumbled about it, the person said.

Ms Hutchinson's lawyers, Jody Hunt and William Jordan of Alston & Bird LLP, issued a statement on Wednesday saying, "Ms Hutchinson stands by all of the testimony she provided yesterday, under oath, to the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan 6th Attack on the United States Capitol."

Some Democrats argue that Ms Hutchinson's testimony isn't undermined until Mr Ornato and Mr Engel present a contradictory account under oath rather than through anonymous surrogates in the press. They also note that Ms Hutchinson never claimed to witness the steering wheel incident and instead testified she had heard about it from Mr Ornato.

Ms Hutchinson testified that Mr Ornato gave her the account of the incident while Mr Engel was with them and Mr Engel didn't disagree with any of the details at the time.

"The president reached up toward the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr Engel grabbed his arm, said Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel," Ms Hutchinson said. "Mr Trump then used his free hand to lunge toward Bobby Engel and Mr Ornato had recounted this story to me he had motion toward his clavicles."

The pushback on one of the hearing's most vivid moments risks undermining the credibility of a key witness with insight into Mr Trump's actions before and during the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol. While Ms Hutchinson said her account of Mr Trump's conduct in the vehicle was second-hand, most of the rest of her testimony covered events she personally witnessed.

Ms Hutchinson's testimony did provide significant first-person recollections from her that Mr Trump was irate about not being allowed to the Capitol, which are not being disputed.

Ms Hutchinson, a former executive assistant to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, gave a portrait of a president raging and callous to the dangers he was creating during his final weeks in office. She described broken porcelain on the floor and ketchup on the wall after Mr Trump learned his attorney general denied claims of election fraud. She said Mr Trump had been informed protesters gathered for his speech on Jan 6 were armed with weapons but went ahead with incendiary rhetoric and even tried to get the Secret Service to suspend weapons checks.

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Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who described Ms Hutchinson's testimony as "devastating" to Mr Trump, said how the pushback on her version of the incident plays out will be crucial in shaping public perceptions of her entire account.

"Credibility matters more than any other attributes in situations like this," Mr Luntz said. "People don't trust Donald Trump. They did trust Cassidy Hutchinson. The tragedy here is that it was the one area she talked about where she wasn't present."

Mr Ornato's credibility was questioned by another Trump administration official, Alyssa Farah Griffin. A former White House director of strategic communications, she said in a tweet that he's denied a conversation he had with her.

Mr Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency would make available anyone that the House committee wished to testify and that Mr Ornato and Mr Engel are willing to return to testify to the panel. Both agents had previously been interviewed by the committee.

Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat and a member of the House panel, said on NBC News' Meet the Press NOW that Mr Ornato "did not have as clear of memories from this period of time, as I would say, Ms Hutchinson did." But she added "we're always happy to have folks who have recalled things to come back." Messages seeking more detail sent to Murphy's office went unanswered.

The Jan 6 panel welcomes anyone who wishes to provide additional information under oath, said a committee official who asked not to be identified.

That official would not comment when asked whether Hutchinson's credibility was undercut in any way by the Secret Service agents' descriptions, or whether the panel will seek to schedule reappearances by Mr Engel and Mr Ornato.

Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and another member of the panel said on CNN on Wednesday that it is "yet to be determined" if Mr Engel and Mr Ornato will testify in open hearing. She said she believes that the committee has additional questions to ask them in the wake of Ms Hutchinson's appearance.

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