On Thursday, news broke that the Secret Service had erased text messages from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021. This news came from Joseph Cuffari, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, who also made it clear that the erasure of the messages happened after Cuffari’s office had notified the Secret Service that it was seeking records of electronic communications over this period.
These records are critical evidence of the events surrounding the Jan. 6 coup plot. That’s especially true in light of the testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. Hutchinson testified under oath about an incident described to her by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Tony Ornato in which Donald Trump attempted to seize the wheel of the presidential limousine and fought with the driver. Following that testimony, Ornato claimed that he would testify that he would testify to dispute Hutchinson’s account. Also, The New York Times and other outlets widely reported that “Secret Service officials who requested anonymity said that the two men in the presidential limousine with Mr. Trump were prepared to state under oath that neither was assaulted by the former president and that he did not reach for the wheel.”
However, in the two weeks since Hutchinson appeared, Ornato has not testified. The “Secret Service officials who requested anonymity” from the Times have not testified. But now someone has stepped up to testify to the committee. Cuffari appeared in a closed door session on Friday to brief all nine members of the committee about how members of the Secret Service deleted critical evidence directly related to Trump’s efforts to led the assault on the Capitol. And his complaints go beyond the Secret Service.
What has happened over the last two weeks is that Trump, right-wing media, and Republicans in Congress have attacked Hutchinson. Trump has made sneering at Hutchinson a standard part of his gig at rallies and in the empty halls of his half-baked social media site. The regular crew of hard-right Trumpists have joined in running the name of the 26-year-old assistant to Mark Meadows into the mud. Trump has also made repeated claims that Hutchinson sought a job at Mar-a-Lago after Jan. 6 because … it’s what Trump does.
What none of them have done is provide any evidence that Hutchinson lied, or was wrong in any particular way.
Cuffari has already provided the committee with a letter in which he noted that the Secret Service had not only deleted information, but done so only after that information was requested by the inspector general. The claim from the Secret Service is that this happened during a “a device-replacement program.” However, this would be a clear violation of multiple laws, including the Inspector General Act.
But it’s not just the Secret Service. Incredibly enough, the Departmental Homeland Secretary (DHS) inspector general is also finding it impossible to get documents from … DHS.
“DHS personnel have repeatedly told OIG inspectors that they were not permitted to provide records directly to OIG and that such records had to first undergo review by DHS attorneys. This review led to weeks-long delays in OIG obtaining records, and created confusion over whether all records had been produced.”
This is, of course, unmitigated bulls#it. And if people are still puzzled about whether they have all the records, the answer is almost certainly “no.”
Hutchinson’s testimony was among the most transfixing, and damaging, given by any witness in the public hearings. Certainly that comes from the idea of Trump physically grappling with his driver in an attempt to steer “the beast” toward the Capitol. But the critical part of this story isn’t whether or not Trump’s actions constituted an assault on his driver.
The critical item raised by Hutchinson’s testimony is that Trump did in fact still intend to go to the Capitol when he finished his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, and that he intended to personally direct the action against Congress completing its final count of the 2020 electors. Trump’s actions on that day speak directly to his involvement in the Jan. 6 plot and his desire to use his own presence to spur the assault. Even the place where members of Trump’s extended team, like right-wing media presence Alex Jones, indicated that Trump was supposed to meet them, was well inside at least two lines that had been set up by police. Just by moving to that position Trump would have ensured that the defense of the Capitol was impossible.
The communications of Secret Service agents around Trump on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 would have spoken not just to their response to Trump’s actions on the day, but to their knowledge and planning in advance of the insurgency. Whether Trump intended to go to the Capitol that day is a key fact.
In response to the letter sent to the committee, the spokesperson for the Secret Service provided a reasoned response. He tweeted a claim that Cuffari is a liar.
In his detailed response, Guglielmi made it clear that data was deliberately erased. It’s just the date he’s quibbling about. Because he says it happened in the immediate wake of Jan. 6.
First, in January 2021, before any inspection was opened by OIG on this subject, the Secret Service began to reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration. In that process, data resident on some phones was lost.
The spokesperson did not, however, provide any information to prove that this was a planned event, or provide any information on how this plan was not in violation of regulations regarding the safekeeping of White House records. Confusingly, later in the same document Guglielmi states that he had “confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration.” Which is utterly counter to Cuffari’s letter.
If the letter from the inspector general is accurate, and he has confirmed that texts were deliberately erased, everyone involved in the deletion these messages must be both immediately fired and ultimately prosecuted. The same thing applies to DHS staffers who withheld information about Jan. 6.