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Heated Debate Erupts Over What Happened Inside Trump’s Vehicle on Jan. 6

WASHINGTON — Shortly after his speech on the Ellipse ended on Jan. 6, 2021, President Donald J. Trump stepped into the back of a black suburb bearing the presidential seal.

What happened next has become a matter of intense debate after an explosive testimony on Tuesday by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide who said Mr. Trump was enraged when his intelligence agency refused to take him to the Capitol.

Speaking to the House committee investigating the attack, Ms. Hutchinson said Anthony M. Ornato, a White House deputy chief of staff, told her that Mr. Trump was trying to grab the wheel of his vehicle when told that he couldn’t. go to the Capitol to join his supporters. Ms. Hutchinson also said that Mr. Ornato had told her that the president “lunged” at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel.

Ms. Hutchinson made it clear in her public testimony that she was not immediately aware of the incident, but that Mr. Ornato told her while Mr. Engel was in the room. It remains unclear what the commission did to confirm it.

Secret Service officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed her account.

But the officials did say that Mr. Engel, Mr. Ornato and the driver of the Suburban are willing to confirm to the commission another damning finding from Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony: that Mr. Trump demanded that his agents take him to the Capitol so that he joined his supporters even after they highlighted the dangerous scene that took place there.

The agents’ willingness to provide potentially critical details about the person they were protecting is a rare turn of events for an agency that has historically prioritized the secret of presidents, even in the face of investigations.

On Wednesday, Jody Hunt, an attorney for Ms. Hutchinson, said his client “stands behind all the testimony she gave under oath yesterday” and he challenged others who were aware of Mr Trump’s actions during the drive to to come to the committee. †

“Those with knowledge of the episode should also testify under oath,” he said.

In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Florida Democrat Representative Stephanie Murphy said Mr. Ornato “didn’t have as clear-cut memories of this period as I would say Mrs. Hutchinson had.”

Asked if the panel had evidence to corroborate Ms. Hutchinson’s claims, Maryland Democrat and committee member Jamie Raskin said Tuesday that Ms. Hutchinson’s own testimony was “evidence” of which he was aware. “I’m not aware of anything that contradicts the story she just gave,” he said.

Anthony Guglielmi, a Secret Service spokesman, said the commission did not contact the agency about Hutchinson’s account of Mr. Trump’s ride from the Ellipse to the White House before her testimony.

Mr. Ornato, who was the head of Trump’s Secret Service before becoming deputy chief of staff, and Mr. Engel testified to the commission before Ms. Hutchinson appeared, but they are willing to do so again, a Secret Service official said.

Mr. Trump’s allies are using the dispute over what happened in the presidential vehicle to question the credibility of Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony as a whole, who painted a portrait of a president who ignored threats of violence from his own supporters , sympathized with those the vice president wanted to “hang” and join the mob that then attacked the Capitol.

The dispute also highlights Mr Trump’s relationship with his Secret Service, which has been unlike that of most previous presidents. According to people who spent time in the White House during multiple administrations, agents were seen as more openly supportive and admiring for Mr. Trump than under any other modern president, and Mr. Trump worked to build loyalty among them.

While other presidents favored the head of their department and sometimes got them promoted within the service, sometimes even appointing them as director of the agency, Mr. Trump tried to make his chief agent part of his personal political team. In naming Mr. Ornato as deputy chief of staff of the White House, Mr. Trump raised eyebrows at traditionalists who saw that as inappropriate.

For generations, agents generally tried to maintain studious neutrality under Republican and Democratic presidents, determined to be seen as protectors of office no matter who held it. Agents were known to like certain presidents more than others—George HW Bush was often described as a favorite, while many reportedly disliked Bill Clinton, especially Hillary Clinton—but they always insisted they weren’t part of it. of the political team.

The dark bond between presidents and their protectors was pierced during the Clinton years when Ken Starr, the independent counsel, subpoenaed agents and uniformed officers to testify about the president’s relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern. . The Secret Service vigorously challenged the subpoenas all the way to the Supreme Court, insisting that disclosing what agents see and hear while protecting a president would sever the bond of trust and prompt future chief executives to keep their guardians at bay, preventing the potential risk. But the judges rejected the argument, finding no law empowering officers to oppose court orders to testify.

That precedent paved the way for the Jan. 6 committee to compel Mr. Trump’s agents to testify and set a precedent in case they eventually return to the panel to discuss what happened in the vehicle on the day of the Capitol attack. That puts the agency in an extremely uncomfortable position, whether the agents are effectively coming to the political defense of a president they had physically protected, or providing information that could harm him.

Peter Bakker reporting contributed.

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