After Hutchinson testimony, will Trump officials remain silent?
If Cassidy Hutchinson’s blockbuster assertions Tuesday prove to be a breakthrough in the Jan. 6 investigation, it would not be the first time a high-profile congressional hearing hinged on the testimony of a little-known aide.
In the Watergate hearings, it was presidential scheduler Alexander Butterfield who first confirmed that President Richard Nixon had been secretly taping White House conversations. Fifteen years later, Lt. Col. Oliver North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, provided testimony that she helped her boss shred reams of documents in the Iran-contra affair. And Linda Tripp, a disgruntled former executive assistant in the Clinton White House, secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky’s confessions of her affair with President Bill Clinton, which proved crucial in his impeachment.
When Ms. Tripp first began talking, a Clinton lawyer said, “Linda Tripp is not to be believed.” That may sound familiar to Ms. Hutchinson, a 20-something aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who offered the most damning account yet of Donald Trump’s actions in a surprise hearing on Tuesday. The former president took to his social media platform to dispute some of her claims and disparage her as someone he hardly knew, a “third rate social climber” and “bull---- artist.” He also criticized the committee for not allowing cross-examination.
Aides in Washington often have extraordinary access to the inner workings of government. That was perhaps nowhere more true than the Trump White House, where the reluctance of many veteran Republican staffers to work for the former reality TV star created more job opportunities for someone like Ms. Hutchinson, a first-generation college graduate eager to serve her country. But even by Washington standards, she seems to have played an unusual role for such a young aide, reportedly accompanying Mr. Meadows to high-level meetings and acting as gatekeeper for access to him and, by extension, the president.
The committee praised her as a young woman of courage and integrity, who was willing to come froward and tell the truth. By contrast, Mr. Trump and his defenders cast her as an ambitious nobody who changed loyalties after being denied a post-White House job and saw an opportunity to command the spotlight with exaggerated or false accounts of him and his inner circle. Either way, her testimony presents a quandary for top White House officials who have so far declined to testify – particularly her former boss, Mr. Meadows.
Mr. Meadows provided more than 2,000 text messages to the committee and was initially willing to appear voluntarily to discuss non-privileged matters, but backed out over what his legal team said was the committee’s refusal to respect executive privilege. Mr. Meadows’ lawyer argued that in order to maintain the constitutional principle of separation of powers, it is essential that not only the president but his top advisers be able to invoke executive privilege. That argument suffered setbacks at the D.C. Circuit of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, the House indicted the former congressman for contempt of Congress. Ms. Hutchinson testified that both Mr. Meadows and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani sought presidential pardons – an assertion they each denied following the hearing.
“This is explosive stuff,” tweeted Mick Mulvaney, who served as Mr. Trump’s acting White House chief of staff before Mr. Meadows took the job in March 2020. “If Cassidy is making this up, they will need to say that. If she isn’t they will have to corroborate.”
Will her testimony change things?
Ms. Hutchinson’s lawyers said she felt it was her “duty and responsibility” to testify before the committee. “Ms. Hutchinson believes that January 6 was a horrific day for the country, and it is vital to the future of our democracy that it not be repeated,” they said. The committee had previously interviewed her privately, and showed video clips from those interviews on Tuesday.
Ms. Hutchinson painted a picture of a president with an explosive temper, surrounded by aides who were often wary of confronting him. After Attorney General Bill Barr told the Associated Press in early December 2020 that the Justice Department had not seen fraud on a scale that could tip the election to Mr. Trump, Ms. Hutchinson says she walked into the White House dining room to find a shattered porcelain plate and ketchup dripping down the wall. That wasn’t the only time the president broke dishware, she told the committee.
But it wasn’t until the last few days before Jan. 6 that she says she got really worried.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was spearheading Mr. Trump’s legal challenges to the 2020 election, told her the president and his supporters were planning to go to the Capitol on Jan. 6, when Congress would be counting the electoral votes. When she asked her boss about it, she recalled him saying, “There’s a lot going on, Cass. I don’t know, things might get real, real bad on the sixth.”
She testified that Mr. Meadows was aware in advance that there was a threat of violence, and that this threat was conveyed to the president. Yet on Jan. 6, after being told that some in the crowd were carrying weapons, the president berated the Secret Service for not letting them past the magnetometers.
“They’re not here to hurt me,” she recalled him saying. “Let my people in.” The committee played police-radio transmissions that identified at least four protesters with AR-15 rifles in the vicinity of the Ellipse where Mr. Trump spoke midday. A senior FBI official testified to the Senate that the bureau did not find any rioters with guns inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, but the Justice Department has charged several people with gun crimes related to that day.
The president promised the crowd he would go with them to the Capitol, which sent his security team scrambling to clear a route for the motorcade, according to a chat log the committee said it obtained from the National Security Council. By the time he got in his vehicle, the Secret Service had nixed the idea, Ms. Hutchinson testified, based on an account she said she received shortly thereafter by Anthony Ornato, then-deputy chief of staff for operations. Upon being told that the plan was not possible, she said Mr. Trump grabbed at the steering wheel, then reached for the neck of Secret Service agent Bobby Engel, who asked him to take his hand off the wheel. According to Ms. Hutchinson, Mr. Ornato related all this to her in front of Mr. Engel, who did not dispute any details.
Mr. Ornato and Mr. Engel are reportedly prepared to dispute under oath Ms. Hutchinson’s account of the physical altercation.
Ms. Hutchinson’s lawyers on Wednesday said she stands by her testimony.
A pointed warning
Once rioters breached the Capitol, the former congressional intern said that, as an American, she felt “disgusted.” “It was unpatriotic,” she said. “It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”
She described Mr. Meadows as displaying no sense of urgency as the chaos unfolded, scrolling through his phone while she raised pressing concerns with him. “I remember thinking at that moment – Mark needs to snap out of this,” she testified.
Later, she says she overheard Mr. Trump and others discussing the protesters’ chants of “Hang Mike Pence.” When White House counsel Pat Cipollone followed up with Mr. Meadows, saying they needed to do more, she recalled Mr. Meadows saying “something to the effect of, ‘You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it.’”
The committee did not ask Ms. Hutchinson if she had taken notes of these conversations, nor did they display any such notes.
The one handwritten note they did share was a message on chief of staff letterhead, which she said her boss dictated to her as a proposed message for Mr. Trump to send to his supporters who had entered the Capitol. White House lawyer Eric Herschmann's spokesman told ABC that in fact he had written it, which critics said raised questions about the credibility of Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony.
On his social media platform, Truth Social, Mr. Trump denied several details in her testimony, such as “throwing food,” pressing for people with guns to watch his speech, grabbing the steering wheel, or endorsing the hanging of Mr. Pence. He called Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony “‘sick’ and fraudulent, very much like the Unselect Committee itself.”
Many Republicans have panned the committee hearings as neatly packaged campaign fodder, and not traditional congressional hearings with a range of views and cross-examination of witnesses. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has taken to criticizing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for pulling all his nominees to the committee, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed two of his picks.
But Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony included claims that Republicans ignore at their peril, The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial Wednesday, even if the committee’s investigation has been shaped by partisan motivations.
The committee has largely relied on Republican witnesses, many of whom it interviewed for hours on camera. They have selected short clips to play during the hearings to complement in-person testimony, but have yet to release full transcripts.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing, Vice Chair Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, issued a pointed warning to Mr. Trump’s allies, who she said had been seeking to influence witnesses.
While hundreds of witnesses have voluntarily cooperated, some have refused, Chairman Bennie Thompson said.
“If you heard this testimony today and suddenly you remember things you couldn’t previous recall, or if there are some details you would like to clarify, or you discovered some courage you had hidden away somewhere – our doors remain open,” he said.