Heated Debate Erupts Over What Happened Inside Trump’s Vehicle on Jan. 6

WASHINGTON — Soon after his speech on the Ellipse ended on Jan. 6, 2021, President Donald J. Trump stepped into the back of a black Suburban bearing the presidential seal.

What happened next has become a matter of intense debate after explosive testimony on Tuesday by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide who said Mr. Trump became enraged when his security detail refused to take him to the Capitol.

Speaking before the House committee investigating the attack, Ms. Hutchinson said she had been told by Anthony M. Ornato, a deputy White House chief of staff, that Mr. Trump tried to grab the wheel of his vehicle when he was told he could not go to the Capitol to join his supporters. Ms. Hutchinson also said Mr. Ornato told her the president “lunged” at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel.

Ms. Hutchinson made clear in her public testimony that she did not have direct knowledge of the incident, but that Mr. Ornato recounted it to her with Mr. Engel present in the room. It remains unclear what, if anything, the committee did to corroborate it.

Secret Service officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, disputed her account.

But the officials did say Mr. Engel, Mr. Ornato and the driver of the Suburban are prepared to confirm to the committee another damning finding from Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony: that Mr. Trump demanded his agents bring him to the Capitol so he could join his supporters, even after they emphasized the dangerous scene playing out there.

The willingness of the agents to provide potentially critical details about the person they were protecting marks a rare turn for an agency that has historically prioritized the secrecy of presidents, even in the face of investigations.

On Wednesday, Jody Hunt, an attorney for Ms. Hutchinson, said his client “stands by all of the testimony she provided yesterday, under oath” and he challenged others who know of Mr. Trump’s actions during the ride to come forward to the committee.

“Those with knowledge of the episode also should testify under oath,” he said.

In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, committee member Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, said Mr. Ornato “did not have as clear of memories from this period of time as I would say Ms. Hutchinson did.”

Asked if the panel had evidence to corroborate Ms. Hutchinson’s claims, Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the committee, said on Tuesday that Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony was itself “the evidence” he was aware of. “I’m not aware of anything that contradicts the account that she just gave,” he said.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the committee did not contact the agency about Hutchinson’s account of Mr. Trump’s ride from the Ellipse to the White House before her testimony.

Mr. Ornato, who was the head of Mr. Trump’s Secret Service detail before being made deputy chief of staff, and Mr. Engel provided testimony to the committee before Ms. Hutchinson appeared, but they are willing to do so again, a Secret Service official said.

Mr. Trump’s allies are using the dispute over what happened in the presidential vehicle to call into question the credibility of Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony as a whole, which painted a portrait of a president who disregarded threats of violence from his own supporters, sympathized with those who wanted to “hang” the vice president and wanted to join the crowd that went on to attack on the Capitol.

The dispute also highlights Mr. Trump’s relationship with his Secret Service detail, which was unlike that of most previous presidents. Agents were seen as more overtly supportive and admiring of Mr. Trump than they had been under any other modern president, according to people who have spent time in the White House during multiple administrations, and Mr. Trump worked to build loyalty among them.

While other presidents came to favor the head of their detail and sometimes ensured they were promoted within the service, even at times appointing them as director of the agency, Mr. Trump sought to make his lead agent part of his personal political team. In naming Mr. Ornato deputy White House chief of staff, Mr. Trump raised eyebrows among traditionalists who saw that as inappropriate.

For generations, agents generally tried to maintain studious neutrality under Republican and Democratic presidents, determined to be seen as protectors of the office regardless of who occupied it. Agents were known to like certain presidents more than others — George H.W. Bush was often described as a favorite, while many were reportedly not fond of Bill Clinton and especially Hillary Clinton — but they always insisted they were not part of the political team.

The murky nexus between presidents and their protectors was pierced during the Clinton years when Ken Starr, the independent counsel, subpoenaed agents and uniformed officers to testify about the president’s relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern. The Secret Service fought the subpoenas vigorously all the way up to the Supreme Court, maintaining that disclosure of what agents see and hear while protecting a president would shatter the bond of trust and prompt future chief executives to keep their guardians at an arm’s length, increasing the potential risk. But the justices rejected the argument, finding no law authorizing agents to resist legal orders to testify.

That precedent paved the way for the Jan. 6 committee to compel Mr. Trump’s agents to testify and set a precedent in case they eventually do return to the panel to discuss what happened in the vehicle on the day of the Capitol attack. That puts the service in an exceedingly uncomfortable position, whether the agents effectively come to the political defense of a president they had protected physically or provide information that could be damaging to him.

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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