WASHINGTON – The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol interviewed former Secret Service agent Tony Ornato on Tuesday about Donald Trump's actions on the day of the insurrection, according to a person familiar with the matter.
This was the third time the committee deposed Ornato, who also served as Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations. Lawmakers have for months sought his testimony to try to corroborate what other witnesses have said about Trump's actions on Jan. 6, 2021, according to the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly about closed-door depositions and requested anonymity.
“This was an opportunity for him to clear the record,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the committee’s chairman, told reporters Tuesday night. Thompson and other committee members had previously said Ornato and other Secret Service personnel have not been “forthcoming with respect to what actually happened" that day. It remains unclear if Ornato's hourslong testimony Tuesday shed any additional light on the disputed altercation.
Former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified publicly over the summer about a conversation she had with Ornato at the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. She said Ornato recalled to her how Trump had lashed out and grabbed at the steering wheel of the presidential SUV being driven by agent Robert Engel when the Secret Service refused to let him go to the Capitol after a rally at the Ellipse.
“The president said something to the effect of, ‘I’m the effing president, take me up to the Capitol now,’” Hutchinson told lawmakers.
“The president reached up towards 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. We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.’ Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel,” she testified.
Secret Service officials quickly disputed the account from Hutchinson about a physical altercation. The officials did not dispute, however, that Trump angrily demanded to be taken to the Capitol to join a mob of his supporters who were marching there and ultimately breached the Capitol.
“We had interviewed Mr. Ornato several times,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the panel, said in response to questions about the veracity of Hutchinson's testimony. “His memory does not appear to be as precise as hers. We certainly would welcome them to come back if they wish to do that.”
Allies of Trump and his former chief of staff Mark Meadows also questioned some details of Hutchinson's testimony, much of which was secondhand information. Meadows’ attorney, George Terwilliger, told The Associated Press in June that Hutchinson’s testimony “could not withstand even five minutes of fundamental cross-examination.”
But several high-profile Republicans rallied to Hutchinson’s defense, saying the young aide was known to be close to Meadows and often accompanied him in meetings.
The committee is hoping Ornato's latest round of testimony can help clear up the conflicting reports about Trump's furious attempts to stay in power on the day of the insurrection. Lawmakers are also seeking Ornato's testimony as they dig deeper into what the Secret Service knew about the attack on the Capitol, including missing text messages between agents sent around that time.
The nine-member panel has obtained more than 1 million pages of documents and communications from the agency as part of a subpoena. The material is expected to be included in a comprehensive report the committee is putting together and scheduled to release by the end of the year.
Ornato's testimony also came a day after former Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway met with the committee. It is unclear what her interview could provide the committee as she had left the Trump White House well before the Jan. 6 attack.