Two former Trump White House aides are accusing a top Secret Service official and key defender of the then-president's actions during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection of being a political loyalist with a history of lying.
Former aides Olivia Troye and Alyssa Farah Griffin have criticized the Secret Service official, Anthony Ornato, amid reports he is disputing that an angry Donald Trump grabbed the steering wheel of his presidential SUV limousine and lunged at a Secret Service agent in the front seat that day. Those explosive allegations were leveled last week by another ex-Trump aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, before the Select Committee investigating the Capitol attack.
Hutchinson testified that Trump wanted to join thousands of his followers who marched up to the Capitol after a speech he gave near the White House, and that he became "irate" after his Secret Service detail told him he had to be driven back to the White House for security reasons. On the way back, Hutchinson testified, the president physically accosted an agent and tried to turn the limo toward the Capitol, according to what Ornato told her immediately after the incident.
At the time, Ornato was the White House deputy chief of staff in charge of operations. Trump had personally appointed Ornato to that position in December 2019, an apparent first for a Secret Service official, because of his loyalty to the President. A 25-year veteran of the Secret Service, Ornato is now back at the agency as its assistant director in charge of the Office of Training.
Hutchinson's testimony came under scrutiny last week after both Ornato and Robert Engel – the agent who was allegedly accosted by Trump – told the Secret Service the president did angrily demand to be taken to the Capitol but that he never grabbed Engel or the steering wheel.
Hutchinson testified that Engel, who was in charge of Trump's protective security detail, also was in the room at the White House when Ornato recounted the story and never tried to correct his version of events.
Troye, the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism advisor to then-Vice President Mike Pence, told USA TODAY Saturday that Ornato has a history of changing his story when it becomes politically troublesome for Trump.
'There seems to be a pattern here'
"There seems to be a pattern here of conversations that happen that are inconvenient conversations for Tony and then he comes back and says that they never happened," Troye said. "That really speaks to Tony's character and credibility, and whether he has a history of doing [Trump's] bidding, and then denying it to protect him."
In riveting testimony last week, Hutchinson – a former top aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – said Trump wanted to let armed supporters into his rally because he knew 'they're not here to hurt me.' "
She also disclosed for the first time that Trump demanded to be driven to the Capitol, and said it was because he allegedly wanted to give a second speech outside the Capitol or perhaps inside the complex while lawmakers were certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.
When Engel first told him no, Trump yelled, "I'm the effing president, take me to the Capitol now," Hutchinson quoted Ornato as telling her.
When he was again told they were returning to the White House, "the President reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel," Hutchinson testified. "Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel. And when Mr. Ornato had recounted this story to me, he had motioned towards his clavicles," describing a choking motion.
Denying the story of Trump's alleged confrontation
Although Hutchinson's testimony was full of other similarly explosive disclosures, the image of Trump physically assaulting a top security aide in an effort to get to the Capitol immediately went viral.
Within hours, though, Secret Service officials began telling reporters that Ornato and Engel were both denying part of Hutchinson's account of the events.
Both are prepared to testify that Trump did, in fact, demand to be taken to the Capitol, a Secret Service official told USA TODAY. But that official also said both men would deny that Trump grabbed Engel or the steering wheel in an attempt to change course.
Neither Ornato nor Engel have spoken publicly yet, and the Secret Service official suggested that they – and the Secret Service itself – would reserve comment until both officials could speak "under oath and on the record" before the committee.
Hutchinson, and a committee spokesman, have stood by her comments. Trump himself has denied most if not all of Hutchinson's testimony. And many of his supporters have used the controversy to try and undermine the overall credibility of her as a witness.
One former Trump White House official, retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, came to Ornato's defense on Twitter: "Regarding 6 January and for the record. I was privileged to know USSS Special Agent in Charge Tony Ornato. Like all USSS Agents, he was highly professional, circumspect in everyday action and trusted. I would take his sworn testimony to the bank."
But in social media posts, both Troye and Farah said it was Ornato's credibility that should be questioned. And they said he should testify under oath about what happened inside the presidential limo and about the Secret Service's actions that entire day.
In that episode, Ornato was planning to have the Secret Service move Pence out of the Capitol on Jan. 6 as rioters came looking for him, only to be told Pence needed to stay and complete the vote certification, according to the book “I Alone Can Fix It.”
Ornato, through a spokesman, denied having that conversation with Kellogg, who was Pence’s national security advisor, according to one of the book’s co-authors, Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig.
And "now he's denying the story he told Cassidy Hutchinson," Troye said.
Ornato 'should testify under oath'
"Those of us who worked w/ Tony know where his loyalties lie. " Troye added. "He should testify under oath."
Soon after, Farah Griffin, a former Trump White House communications director, weighed in with her own tweet.
"Tony Ornato lied about me too. During the protests at Lafayette sq in 2020, I told Mark Meadows & Ornato they needed to warn press staged there before clearing the square," she said. "Meadows replied: “we aren’t doing that.” Tony later lied &said the exchange never happened. He knows it did."
On Saturday, Leonnig also questioned Ornato's truthfulness when it comes to incidents involving Trump. She said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that Ornato lied to her and other reporters about the incident at Lafayette Square, saying Trump aides did not clear the crowded park so he could walk to a nearby church and do a photo op with a Bible in his hand.
“That's not true. He was at the center of that,” said Leonnig, who also wrote the best-selling 2022 book, “Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service.”
“This is a person who worked as President Trump's security detail leader, the number one guy protecting the boss, and the boss liked him so much he installed him in a political White House job,” Leonnig said. “That broke every Secret Service tradition in the book, because he stayed as a Secret Service employee, but Trump essentially had him directing the Secret Service to make sure that all of his campaign events, all of his photo ops, everything he wanted to do to get reelected, went off without a hitch.”
And while most Secret Service agents leave their politics behind when protecting the President and other top officials, Leonnig said Saturday of Ornato, “Trump White House staffers and Secret Service agents have told me repeatedly he's a Trump acolyte. He will defend the president to the end, and he remains in contact with Trump world.”
"So I want to stress that also, Tony Ornato has indicated to his bosses that this story Cassidy Hutchinson told didn't happen. Well, Tony Ornato has said a lot of things didn't happen," said Leonnig.
Both Ornato and Engel already have testified in private before the House committee but the complete details of what they said have not been disclosed.
On Saturday, Troye said both of them should testify in response to Hutchinson's allegations so that the committee – and the American public – can understand what they know about happened on Jan. 6.
"What really matters is not whether he actually lunged and touched the steering wheel or not," Troye said. "What keeps getting lost in this is that nobody's disputing that the President wanted to go to the Capitol and that he felt safe going even though all of these people had weapons."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Two former White House aides say top Secret Service official may be lying to protect Trump