Jan. 6 inquiry thrusts Secret Service back into center of controversy
WASHINGTON - A drumbeat of revelations from the House Jan. 6 committee has revealed two dueling identities of the Secret Service under former President Donald Trump - gutsy heroes who blocked the president from a dangerous plan to accompany rioters at the Capitol and political yes-men who were willing to enable his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The new depiction of the Secret Service - which has endured a decade of controversy from a prostitution scandal and White House security missteps during the Obama years to allegations of politicization under Trump - has cast new doubt on the independence and credibility of the legendary presidential protective agency.
On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump unsuccessfully cajoled his agents to drive him to Capitol Hill, where he would have joined a mob of his supporters descending violently on the grand symbol of democracy. Some 45 minutes later on the other end, former Vice President Mike Pence refused a request of his security detail to get into an armored car - concerned, according to testimony, that his protectors would take him away from the Capitol and prevent him from carrying out his duty to oversee the final count of electoral college votes.
Earlier that day, according to former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, Trump had complained that the Secret Service's "mags," used to screen people for weapons, were preventing armed supporters from entering his "Stop the Steal" rally on the Ellipse.
"Here you have the Service thrown into a day that was crazy Banana Republic stuff," said Bill Gage, a former counterassault agent in the Secret Service who protected presidents George W. Bush and Obama. "My God. What would have happened if the agents had let Trump go to the Capitol?"
At the center of the current storm is one key agent - Tony Ornato - who held a highly unusual role in Trump's orbit. The onetime head of the president's security detail temporarily left his Secret Service job to work as deputy White House chief of staff. The political assignment was unprecedented in the Secret Service, as Ornato effectively crossed over from civil servant to become a key part of Trump's effort to get reelected.
Through an agency spokesperson, Ornato has denied Hutchinson's blockbuster claims given under oath Tuesday that he told her that Trump had lunged at the steering wheel of the Secret Service vehicle carrying the president away from his Jan. 6 rally and that he had reached toward the head of his detail, Robert Engel, in a fit of rage over not being taken to the Capitol.
Ornato and Engel were previously questioned by the committee about that day, and both had confirmed that Trump demanded to be taken to the Capitol and was furious about being told they would not do so, according to people familiar with their testimony. Neither had been asked about Trump's alleged physical altercation in the car, according to two people briefed on their testimony.
But the aftershocks of Hutchinson's appearance have continued.
Lawmakers on the committee said Ornato had said in his initial testimony that he was unable to recall other actions and statements by Trump on Jan. 6 that other witnesses had described in great detail. Both have told their superiors they would be willing to deliver sworn testimony to the committee, and people with knowledge of the committee's deliberations said they expect the agents to be called soon.
As Ornato and Engel watched Hutchinson's testimony Tuesday, they immediately disputed to agency officials that Trump had lunged at the steering wheel and Engel, and Ornato insisted he had not told Hutchinson this, according to two law enforcement officials. The Secret Service prepared a line-by-line public statement that afternoon to counter specific points, the officials said, and also note that the committee never asked Ornato and Engel about this allegation.
But on Tuesday evening, officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of the Secret Service, instructed the Service not to issue a public statement and to instead offer the agents as witnesses to give testimony under oath, according to three people familiar with the decision.
DHS officials did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Ornato and Engel did not respond to requests for comment. Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said agents performed their job on a day under unprecedented challenges, and yet none of the nation's leaders were harmed.
"The sworn and professional men and women of the Secret Service execute our mission in an exceptional manner with the highest levels of distinction," Guglielmi said. "This was no exception on Jan. 6, 2021."
Former Secret Service agents and national security officials emphasized the even more horrible events that could have unfolded on Jan. 6 if either Pence's or Trump's detail leaders had made different choices. They described the unimaginable scenario in which the president and vice president set out on a violent collision course at the Capitol, two leaders with opposing goals meeting up, accompanied by their dueling security guards and Trump's chaotic army of protesters. Trump, after all, had been pressuring Pence to refuse to go along with the final count of electors, and some rioters were chanting, "Hang Mike Pence!"
Agents who had sworn to protect the president's and vice president's lives with their own made choices on the fly that day - refusing a direct order from Trump and acceding to the vice president's wishes. Together, the agents' game-day decisions helped keep democracy on the rails, several former agents said.
"Bobby Engel did the right thing and says, `No sir, this is a dangerous situation, we're not taking you to the Capitol'," said Jim Helminski, a retired Secret Service official and former head of Biden's security detail when he was vice president. "If they had [taken him], there would have undoubtedly been a potentially dangerous confrontation between the vice president and the president."
"If the president finds Pence and they get into an argument - it really is scary," Helminski added. "Does the vice president's detail now protect the vice president from the presidential detail?"
People briefed on the two detail leaders' accounts of Jan. 6 to the congressional committee said both Trump's and Pence's detail leaders were making decisions in a myopic vacuum: They were solely focused on the immediate security risks to the national leader they were charged with protecting, and yet their choices aided a peaceful transfer of power.
"Our history would be so changed if things had happened differently," Gage said. "What if Engel said, `We can make this happen for you Mr. President?'"
Yet the Secret Service's claim of being politically independent - illustrated by the familiar agents' maxim "the people elect 'em, we protect 'em" - was tested by Trump's tenure in the White House.
Trump had relied on Ornato to carry out plans that many agents complained put them, the public and the president in danger, according to interviews with more than a dozen Secret Service employees and administration officials and internal records. That included using the Secret Service staff to travel to massive campaign rallies as deadly coronavirus cases surged in the summer of 2020, and to forcibly clear peaceful crowds from Lafayette Square in June 2020 so Trump could appear tough on Black Lives Matter protesters for a photo op.
On Jan. 6, Trump's ability to make Secret Service leadership bend to his will had created significant doubt for several Trump administration officials about the motives of senior Secret Service agents, according to committee testimony and Washington Post interviews with officials.
With an hour-long speech on the Ellipse that ended just after 1 p.m., Trump had fomented a mob-like march to the Capitol that he hoped would help him block the certification of Biden's victory. Before he had finished speaking, a small band of protesters had already begun breaking down outer barricades at the Capitol and marching up the steps toward the halls of Congress.
Pence and his team worried his own Secret Service agents might block him from his goals. Despite an armed mob breaking through the windows of the Capitol, the vice president insisted on remaining in the Capitol so he could finish the job of formally approving the results of the presidential election. As rioters stormed through the hallways, Pence's detail leader insisted on taking a reluctant Pence from a hidden office to the Capitol basement. But Pence refused his top agent's recommendation to climb into his armored limousine, for fear agents might drive him away from the building.
Keith Kellogg, a Trump aide who then was working as Pence's national security adviser, had stressed to Ornato that the vice president intended on staying inside the Capitol to finish the job, according to the book "I Alone Can Fix It." He told Ornato the Secret Service detail had better not try to forcibly remove Pence from the building.
"I know you guys too well," Kellogg said. "You'll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don't do it."
Ornato, through a Secret Service spokesperson, has previously denied that this conversation took place.
If Ornato and Engel testify before the Jan. 6 committee, they could face a wide range of questions not only about Trump's behavior that day but more broadly concerning the extent to which they served the interests of the presidency - or the man who was president.
Two former Trump White House aides took to Twitter Wednesday to say Ornato has a pattern of denying conversations that they know took place.
"Tony Ornato lied about me too," tweeted Alyssa Farah, former White House communications director. She said that she spoke with Ornato and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows before the forcible clearing of Lafayette Square in June 2020, in which they refused to warn reporters who were staged at the park that they needed to move.
"Tony later lied & said the exchange never happened," Farah wrote.
Olivia Troye, a former senior national security aide to Pence, took to Twitter as well to express her views of Ornato.
"Those of us who worked w/ Tony know where his loyalties lie," she wrote. "He should testify under oath."