Jan. 6 Witness Anthony Ornato Is at the Center of a Battle Over Credibility
Anthony M. Ornato had resigned from his role as the Secret Service agent responsible for President Donald J. Trump’s protective detail in late 2019, when the culture of internal strife that Mr. Trump fostered during his tenure caused top advisers to the president were frantically searching for a key candidate to fill: White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.
The title does not fully reflect the importance of the job, which involves ensuring the continuity of government and overseeing the logistics of the president’s movements outside the White House, security and the military office. With the intention of making sure it went to someone qualified and with few options available, the person leaving the role, Dan Walsh, and Lindsay Reynolds, the chief of staff to Melania Trump, the first lady, quickly settled on Mr. Ornato, who was known to Mr Trump.
Mr. Ornato did not want the job, according to three former White House officials. At that time, he enjoyed working at the Secret Service headquarters. Like many agents, he had served past administrations across party lines, first protecting President George W. Bush’s daughter, Barbara, and later working on President Barack Obama’s details. And either way, it would be highly unusual for an apolitical agency official to take up a senior position in the White House.
But when Mr Trump called to tell him he was putting him on the job, he believed he had no choice but to take the job, according to those officials. For the remainder of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Ornato was located in the heart of the West Wing, occupying an office across the hall from the Oval Office and adjacent to the office of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior counselor.
Now, Mr. Ornato is at the center of a dispute over events during the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. He is both a witness to significant developments and a figure in what is either a legitimate battle for credibility or, in the view of some critics, attempting to debunk the devastating account of the actions of Mr. Trump and his aides given to the House of Representatives Jan. 6 committee this week by Cassidy Hutchinson, another former White House aide. cloud.
In her public testimony, Ms. Hutchinson said she learned from Mr. Ornato of a stunning scene in the back of the presidential vehicle on January 6, shortly after Mr. Trump’s speech at the Ellipse ended outside the White House.
She testified that Mr. Ornato told her that Mr. Trump was trying to force the Secret Service to take him to the Capitol to join his supporters. In her story, Mr. Ornato said that Mr. Trump tried to grab the wheel of the armored vehicle.
Ms. Hutchinson also said that Mr. Ornato had told her that the president “lunged” at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel. Mr Engel, Ms Hutchinson testified, was present when Mr Ornato told the story to her and did not correct Mr Ornato’s story.
Secret service officials have said Mr Ornato, Mr Engel and the driver of the vehicle are willing to testify that no such incident occurred. (The committee had already interviewed Mr Ornato and Mr Engel before Ms Hutchinson appeared this week.)
The officials do not dispute that Mr. Trump angrily demanded to be taken to the Capitol. On the day of the riots, Trump administration officials told The New York Times that the president was furious while at the rally.
A Secret Service official, who asked not to use his name to describe the possible testimony, acknowledged that a conversation had taken place with Ms. Hutchinson, but said it didn’t go as she described.
Officials from the Jan. 6 commission have tried to bolster Ms Hutchinson’s credibility, saying they found inconsistencies in Mr Ornato’s testimony, though they have not released the transcripts in question. A former colleague, Alyssa Farah Griffin, accused him on Twitter of lying about a meeting they had during the 2020 protests in Lafayette Square outside the White House. Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican from Illinois and member of the committee, wrote on the social media site“There seems to be a big common thread here… Tony Ornato likes to lie.”
But Keith Kellogg, the former national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, publicly vouched for Mr Ornato, as did other former officials.
“I think the man is a straight-up gunman,” said John F. Kelly, the former White House chief of staff who has publicly broken up with Mr. Trump, and who worked with Mr. Ornato when he was the special agent in charge. about Mr Trump. Trump details. “There was never a second thought in my mind that wherever we went, the work the Secret Service had to do was really well done and done.”
A former senior official in the Trump administration recalled that Mr. Trump demanded to attend a major public event with one day’s notice, and Mr. Ornato bluntly told him that no such move was possible.
In the first few years of Trump’s presidency, two former senior officials said, Mr. Ornato would periodically flag the chief of staff or one of his trusted aides in what was known as “limo talk,” the kind of directives or statements Mr. Ornato issued. Trump would make him either expect people to act or what Mr. Ornato thought the chief should be aware of.
As the current Assistant Director of the Office of Training at the Secret Service, Mr. Ornato based at Secret Service headquarters, though those close to the agency said he often traveled to the training facility in rural Maryland to talk to potential agents. He has held several leadership positions at the agency, including in the New York field office.
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While there, he was responsible for all protective operations, including the prominent assignment to ensure officials were safe in the UN General Assembly.
The family of Mr. Born in a town outside of New Haven, Conn., Ornato owned a town tavern that was a generational home for local police officers and firefighters. He worked in the New Haven Secret Service office in 2000 when Mr. Bush ran for president. When Mr. Bush won, Mr. Ornato joined his daughter’s protective ward. He remained under Mr. Obama, and was promoted a handful of times.
People who worked with Mr. Ornato in the Trump White House said they had never seen him talk about his political opinions, even when the former president asked his opinion, as Mr. Trump tended to do with almost everyone to him.
But some officials were uncomfortable with the decision to appoint a member of the Secret Service who has long tried to maintain the image of impartiality as deputy White House chief of staff.
“Never, never heard of it,” said Rand Beers, former acting secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “While the Secret Service details can be involved in some pretty sensitive stuff, pretty embarrassing stuff, they keep their image because people generally don’t see them as political because of their silence.”
“All I can say,” he said, “is that this is extremely unusual.”
Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.