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Who Is the Secret Service Really Protecting?

The Jan. 6th Committee investigates.
July 18, 2022
Who Is the Secret Service Really Protecting?
(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Under its protective mission, the Secret Service’s two most important responsibilities are to protect the president and the vice president. Those duties, shockingly, came into conflict on January 6th when Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against Mike Pence culminated in a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. The president put the vice president’s life in danger.

To fully understand the events of that day, it’s imperative to know what the Secret Service did under such unprecedented circumstances. And the need for this information has only been heightened in recent weeks by disturbing revelations about three specific issues agents and officials would have insights on:

In response to public testimony before the House Jan. 6th Committee, anonymous sources described as “close” to the Secret Service have disputed parts of these stories. But, so far, the Secret Service has not offered any actual evidence, at least not in the open.

And it gets worse—much worse. The Secret Service says it “lost” critical communications from January 5 and 6, 2021, supposedly as a part of a routine process.

Does that explanation not quite sound believable? It shouldn’t. Because, really, how could the Secret Service, a law enforcement agency well versed in the practice of preserving documents and corroborating stories, just accidentally destroy communications from one of the most momentous days in its history—especially after the agency was asked to preserve exactly those types of documents?

Despite letters from multiple congressional committees (see here, here, and here) requesting that executive branch agencies preserve documents related to Jan. 6th, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (of which the Secret Service is a part) notified Congress last week that critical text messages dated between January 5 and 6, 2021, were “erased.” More concerning, the IG said this erasure happened after its investigators had requested electronic communications from the Secret Service.

The Secret Service denies any wrongdoing. Its spokesman said last week that in January 2021 the agency began to “reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration,” and that, as part of that process, “data resident on some phones was lost.” The spokesman also rejected the IG’s timeline, explaining that the IG didn’t make its request for electronic records until February 2021, “after the migration was well underway.”

But the spokesman’s statement does not mention the letters from congressional committees directing DHS to preserve information, at least one of which was received by DHS in mid-January 2021.

The statement did little to satisfy the IG, Joseph Cuffari, who on Friday met with all nine members of the Jan. 6th Committee for an in-person briefing. There, according to CNN’s reporting, Cuffari relayed three significant concerns:

First, that he had repeatedly told DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that he was having trouble getting information from the Secret Service, which is why he went to Congress for assistance.

Second, that the Secret Service did not conduct an after-action review of the events related to Jan. 6th.

And third, that the Secret Service had not been fully cooperative with his investigation.

After the briefing, the Jan. 6th Committee issued a subpoena for the missing text messages, as well as “any after action reports that have been issued in any and all divisions” of the Secret Service—because if the agency really didn’t conduct any analysis of its actions on Jan. 6th, that would be a staggering dereliction of leadership.

The Secret Service promised that it would respond “swiftly.” The subpoena gave a deadline of this coming Tuesday, July 19, and members of the committee said over the weekend that they expect to receive the text messages ahead of the hearing scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m., which is expected to focus on what took place in the White House during the 187 minutes the Capitol was under attack.

The committee members didn’t reveal how exactly they expected to obtain the “lost” messages, but as many people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system have learned, resetting phones to factory settings doesn’t necessarily mean text messages aren’t recoverable. Additionally, whoever the agents were texting with may well be able to turn over their version of the communications. This is precisely what former White House Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson did during her memorable testimony.

One person Hutchinson testified communicating with at length is shaping up to become a central figure in the investigation—and his involvement raises further troubling questions about the Secret Service.

Tony Ornato is a Secret Service agent who, in a highly unusual move, left his position leading Trump’s security detail to serve as Trump’s deputy White House chief of staff for operations. In that post, he oversaw the Secret Service—the agency that had employed him and to which he has since returned. He is now the assistant director of the Secret Service Office of Training.

The fact that a Secret Service agent who left the agency to work for one president as a high-ranking official in the service of his administration—effectively leaving the civil service to become a political appointee—was then allowed to just slide back into the Secret Service under the next president of another party raises obvious questions about potential political bias in the agency.

Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, the author of a 2021 book chronicling many reckless security missteps and coverups by the Secret Service, pointed to Ornato as a critical person in interviews and in another book she released last year (this time with her colleague Philip Rucker). In I Alone Can Fix It, Leonnig and Rucker quote Keith Kellog, a senior official in the Trump White House, recalling an important conversation with Ornato as Pence fled the Senate chambers for a secure location:

Around this time, Kellogg ran into Tony Ornato in the West Wing. Ornato, who oversaw Secret Service movements, told him that Pence’s detail was planning to move the vice president to Joint Base Andrews.

“You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg said. “Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.”

Ornato’s spokesperson denied this conversation took place, just as “sources” close to Ornato have denied other allegations. For his part, Ornato has previously met with the committee twice and Kellogg has since vouched for Ornato, tweeting that he would take Ornato’s “sworn testimony to the bank.” But that doesn’t mean Ornato answered all the questions the committee had for him, or that Kellogg is a wise investor.

Indeed, despite what Kellogg thinks, members of the committee had already expressed dissatisfaction with Ornato’s answers.

Last month, Rep. Stephanie Murphy told NBC, “Ornato did not have as clear of memories from this period of time as I would say Ms. Hutchinson did.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger was more blunt when he echoed complaints from other Trump staffers about Ornato and tweeted, “There seems to be a major thread here. . . . Tony Ornato likes to lie.”

So what’s the real story?

Watch for congressional investigators to probe these matters in the days and weeks ahead—hoping to learn whether anything significant was in the missing text messages, and whether there are deeper problems at the Secret Service.

Put another way: Who or what is the Secret Service really protecting? The president and the vice president, as the highest constitutional officers? Donald Trump? Or itself?

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.