How complicit was the Secret Service in Trump’s attempted coup?
By Herbert Rothschild
At the most recent public hearing of the January 6 Committee, televised on Oct. 13, the focus of Rep. Adam Schiff’s presentation was what the committee had learned about Secret Service agents’ behavior before and on the day of the assault. At one point he said that the documents the committee had received from the Secret Service indicated that testimony agents previously had given before the committee was “not credible.”
Concerns about the conduct of the Secret Service detail under the direction of Agent Robert “Bobby” Engel and Anthony “Tony” Ornato, Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, began long before it turned over a huge cache of documents (“hundreds of thousands,” according to committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren) to the committee on July 26. Indeed, the committee had to issue a subpoena for the records because, the week before, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees reporting that crucial text messages agents sent on Jan. 5 and 6 had been erased.
The agency claimed that those messages were lost by accident when there was “a device-replacement program,” and that Congress hadn’t requested until after the data migration was finished that all records related to the insurrection be preserved. However, CNN reported that Congress informed the agency on Jan. 16, 2021, and again on Jan. 25, 2021, that it needed to preserve and produce those records. Adding to the January 6 Committee’s concern was a letter Cuffari sent directly to it in which he revealed that, in June 2021, after he requested messages sent and received by 24 Secret Service agents between Dec. 7, 2020, and Jan. 8, 2021, the agency only provided one.
In an interview with MSNBC, Lofgren said there are “troubling behavior patterns” emerging from the committee’s dealings with the Secret Service. She added, “I’m also concerned about the actions of the inspector general (Cuffari). He sat on this stuff for months and months and months as well, and now he has ordered the department to stop the forensics analysis of the phones, which we need.” On July 26, Bennie Thompson, chair of the January 6 Committee, and Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight Committee, demanded that Cuffari step aside from the investigation into the missing messages and that a new inquiry head be appointed.
A key question is why the Secret Service didn’t act on information it received both before January 6 and on that morning about how dangerous the crowd would be. At the October hearing, Schiff quoted a tip the FBI relayed to the Secret Service on Dec. 26, 2020: “Their (White Nationalists’) plan is to literally kill people. Please, please take this tip seriously.” And we already knew that the Secret Service had observed on the morning of January 6 that many in the crowd were carrying weapons, including firearms. Nonetheless, the Secret Service didn’t urge the Capitol Police or the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to beef up security around the Capitol.
Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, author of “Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of The Secret Service” (2021), characterized Engel and Ornato as being “very, very close to President Trump.” During an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on June 29, 2022, Leonnig said, “some people accused them of at times being enablers and ‘yes men’ of the president — particularly Tony Ornato — and very much people who wanted to … see him pleased.” She claimed that there was a large contingent of Trump’s Secret Service detail that wanted Biden to fail, and some “took to their personal media accounts to cheer on the insurrection and the individuals riding up to the Capitol as patriots.” (I’ve found no verification of that last assertion.)
Ornato testified in January and again in March before the January 6 committee, although maybe not under oath. Members of the committee have expressed frustration with aspects of Ornato’s testimony. Rep. Adam Kinzinger posted on Twitter, “There seems to be a major thread here… Tony Ornato likes to lie.”
Were Ornato and perhaps members of Trump’s security detail intentionally abetting the insurrection? The erased text messages might have answered that question. Maybe the committee will find other sources that will answer it. Weighing against complicity, perhaps, is Engel’s insistence that Trump be driven back to the White House after his speech at the Ellipse, which infuriated Trump, who wanted to join those besieging the Capitol.
There is, however, one more huge piece to the story of what transpired that day. When the Secret Service detail protecting Vice President Pence had led him to an undisclosed area where they could put him in a vehicle and drive away, the detail was in communication with Ornato. Apparently, Ornato wanted them to get Pence away from the Capitol and take him to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Pence refused (“I’m not getting in the car”), later explaining he felt that if the mob saw him fleeing, it would “validate” their assault.
But another explanation is that Pence knew he wouldn’t be able to finish the work of certifying the election results if he left. Rep. Jamie Raskin, another committee member, spoke about this in a televised conversation with the Rev. Jim Wallis at Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice on April 21, 2022. He explained that if Pence was gone, Republicans could have used the Twelfth Amendment to let the House — state delegation by delegation, with each state having one vote — select the President.
Nicole Wallace of MSNBC on July 14 read on air an excerpt from a new book by Lennig and Philip Rucker, “I Alone Can Fix It,” in which they reported that Pence’s National Security Advisor, Gen. Keith Kellogg (ret.), was in the White House just then, and Ornato told him that Secret Service agents were taking Pence away. Reportedly Kellogg replied, “You can’t do that, Tony. 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.”
I don’t know why this aspect of Trump’s attempted coup hasn’t garnered sustained attention. It strikes me that the moment I’ve just discussed (“I’m not getting in the car”) was a decisive one. We’ll see how much prominence it gets in the committee’s final report.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.