By Zachary Cohen and Annie Grayer, CNN
The House select committee investigating the Capitol riot is interviewing former White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato on Tuesday, a potentially key witness whose testimony could shed new light on former President Donald Trump’s movements leading up to and on January 6, 2021, according to two sources familiar with the panel’s work.
Former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified back in June that Ornato, who transitioned back to his post at the US Secret Service after Trump left office and retired earlier this year, told her the former president lashed out in anger and lunged at a member of his protective detail as he demanded to be taken to the Capitol on January 6.
Tuesday’s virtual interview is the first time Ornato has met with the panel since Hutchinson’s testimony. Ornato met with the committee twice prior to his expected interview on Tuesday, once in January and again in March.
Hutchinson testified that Ornato told her that Trump got so angry when informed he could not go to the Capitol after his speech at the White House Ellipse on the morning of January 6 that he lunged at the lead agent of his motorcade, Robert Engel, and said something to the effect of “I’m the effing president. Take me up to the Capitol now.”
“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,” Hutchinson testified.
Hutchinson said that Ornato told her the story of Trump being “irate” back at the White House office later that day with Engel present. She said Engel, whom CNN previously reported has also interviewed with the committee in recent weeks, “did not correct or disagree with any part of the story.”
Hutchinson’s testimony of Ornato’s description of the altercation was under oath during the committee’s public June 28 hearing and has become a key event in the timeline of Trump’s movements on January 6. The panel interviewed Engel for the first time since Hutchinson’s public testimony on November 17.
Neither Ornato and Engel have denied Hutchinson’s testimony on the record. A Secret Service official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, previously told CNN that Ornato denies telling Hutchinson that the former president grabbed the steering wheel of his presidential SUV or an agent on his detail.
Members of the panel have long said they want to call Ornato back in for further questioning.
“We’re in a position in the very near future to call the witnesses from the Secret Service back in for a few additional questions,” Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a committee member, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on “CNN Newsroom” in October.
Committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, told CNN in September that members of the panel believe Ornato was personally involved in efforts to discredit Hutchinson’s testimony while he was still at the agency and said unnamed Secret Service officials and others simply adopted his side of the story.
“I just think it’s so important to keep in mind that, through quote, anonymous sources, which we believe to be actually Tony Ornato himself, he pushed back against Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony and said, it’s just not true and Tony will testify under oath,” he told CNN. “And then of course, has not come in to testify under oath.”
In addition to the motorcade incident, Ornato could also be key to helping investigators fill in other blanks pertaining to the Secret Service.
Questions over potential deleted Secret Service text messages surrounding January 6 emerged over the summer which resulted in the panel demanding more information from the agency via subpoena. The agency ultimately provided approximately 1.5 million communications from the lead-up to the attack, including emails and planning documents to the committee, according to an agency spokesman. The batch of records, however, do not include the text messages lost to a data migration that prompted a criminal probe by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.
Members had said they wanted to finish going through the material before calling Ornato and other agents and officials back in.
In its October hearing, the committee revealed it had obtained messages and emails showing the agency received warnings before January 6 about the prospect of violence, as well as real-time reports of weapons in the crowd ahead of Trump’s speech at the Ellipse as part of the massive trove of documents it received.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said in that hearing that that the Secret Service received alerts of online threats made against former Vice President Mike Pence ahead of the Capitol riot, including that Pence would be “a dead man walking if he doesn’t do the right thing.”
On January 6, one Secret Service agent texted at 12:36 p.m., according to the committee, “With so many weapons found so far; you wonder how many are unknown. Could be sporty after dark.”
Another agent responded minutes later, “No doubt. The people at the Ellipse said they are moving to the Capitol after the POTUS speech.”
Ornato’s expected interview with the committee on Tuesday comes as the panel has moved at a rapid clip to bring in as many as half a dozen more Secret Service agents and officials. In recent weeks the panel has interviewed the onetime head of Pence’s security detail, Tim Giebels; former Secret Service agent John Gutsmiedl; agency spokesman Anthony Guglielmi; the Secret Service agent who was in the lead car on January 6; and the driver of Trump’s presidential vehicle on January 6.
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