Is the Secret Service covering up January 6? Agency under scrutiny as questions pile up

January 6 committee member Adam Kinzinger thinks something is amiss at the agency tasked with protecting US presidents. Andrew Feinberg looks at the evidence

Saturday 22 October 2022 19:23 BST

Is something untoward afoot at the elite agency charged with safeguarding the life of President Joe Biden?

Adam Kinzinger certainly thinks so.

During an appearance on CNN’s The Situation Room earlier this week, the Illinois Republican congressman was discussing whether the House January 6 select committee will seek additional testimony from Secret Service agents who served on former president Donald Trump’s protective detail before and during the Capitol riot.

Committee members have been considering whether to compel one former agent turned Trump White House aide, Tony Ornato, to give evidence for months, ever since one of his former colleagues, ex-Mark Meadows assistant Cassidy Hutchinson, said he told her that Mr Trump became violent when he was told that he could not accompany the riotous mob he’d summoned to Washington as they marched to the Capitol on his orders.

Shortly after Ms Hutchinson testified under oath, anonymous sources contacted numerous White House reporters to push back on her claims. The sources, who were described as being close to the Secret Service, said Mr Ornato would testify that no such altercation between Mr Trump and any of the agents assigned to guard him. But in the weeks since, multiple sources — some identified by name — have corroborated her testimony.

Mr Kinzinger suggested that the inconsistency from Mr Ornato — who has yet to make good on his promise to contradict Ms Hutchinson’s sworn testimony — could be part of something bigger and more nefarious.

“There is something going on at the Secret Service, either pure incompetence, all the way on the scale to potentially very criminal activity or — or just having a preference for one side or the other,” he said.

But it’s not just Mr Ornato’s apparent false statements that have observers concerned about the agency tasked with protecting presidents.

Even before the Capitol attack, Mr Biden’s advisers harboured worries that the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) was stacked with agents who would remain loyal to the man he beat in the 2020 election.

According to the Washington Post, during Mr Biden’s transition post-election, the agency began to rotate senior agents who’d served on his vice-presidential detail back to the PPD. Such personnel movements aren’t unheard of, especially when an incoming president has been a service protectee in the past.

But the changes also came at a time when the service was under scrutiny for actions that made it appear aligned politically with Mr Trump.

It was Mr Ornato who was at the centre of that firestorm as well. A well-regarded special agent, he raised eyebrows in 2020 when he was granted special dispensation to be detailed to the Executive Office of the President as a Deputy White House Chief of Staff.

In that role, the non-partisan civil servant took on the mantle of one of Mr Trump’s top political advisers, responsible for coordinating the then-president’s movements and organising White House events such as the infamous June 2020 photo opportunity at which Mr Trump held a bible aloft outside a Lafyette Square church that had been forcibly cleared of peaceful civil rights protesters.

One former Trump confidante told The Independent the decision to bring Mr Ornato into a political position was typical of how the ex-president co-opts and compromises people and institutions.

The ex-White House aide said they were not surprised by Mr Ornato’s rush to defend Mr Trump after Ms Hutchinson’s testimony appeared to damage him. They also said they were similarly unsurprised by the witnesses who have confirmed her testimony and suggested that the agency should have known he would no longer be reliable as a witness once he took a job in Mr Trump’s political orbit and should never have allowed him to return to the agency after Mr Trump’s term ended.

Multiple former Trump administration staffers and persons familiar with Secret Service operations also said the loss of text messages from the days before and during the Capitol riot are symptoms of the same politicisation virus that Mr Trump infected the service with by recruiting Mr Ornato.

Agency officials have claimed the messages were scuttled during a pre-planned device upgrade, but former Secret Service agents and persons familiar with agency capabilities have expressed scepticism about that explanation.

Concerns about whether top agents deliberately wiped the texts after they were subpoenaed by the House January 6 select committee have also been compounded by reports alleging that the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector general stepped in to prevent actions that might have recovered the messages.

The DHS watchdog, Joseph Cuffari, is a Trump appointee who has remained on the job despite an ongoing investigation into whether he acted improperly to stymie probes into the agency’s response to January 6.

In August, The Independent reported that Mr Biden has not ruled out using his authority to oust Mr Cuffari, who has also drawn scrutiny for allegedly lying to Congress about a 2013 investigation into his conduct during his confirmation process.

At the time, a source familiar with the White House’s internal processes said administration officials were “looking into the facts and the situation surrounding [Mr] Cufarri, following the recent revelations with regard to the text messages and the reporting around his past behaviour”.

Aides say Mr Biden has been reluctant to intervene regarding Mr Cuffari because of a desire not to interfere with the government’s independent inspectors general, particularly since his predecessor readily did so to protect himself and allies.

But the ex-Trump aide who was left unsurprised by Mr Ornato’s alleged duplicity said Mr Biden and his advisers are making a grave error by exercising such forbearance for its’ own sake.

“Either they don’t get that Trump co-opted a significant chunk of our nation’s law enforcement apparatus, or they understand it but have no idea how to deal with it in a way that doesn’t make them look as craven as he is,” they said. “But if they don’t get to it, it could get very messy in two years”.

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