Anthony M. Ornato had left his post as a Secret Service agent in charge of protective detail for President Donald J. Trump at the end of 2019 when the culture of internal conflict that Mr. Trump encouraged throughout his tenure left the The president’s top advisers are frantically searching for a candidate. to fill a key role: White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.
The title does not fully capture the importance of the position, which is to ensure continuity of government and oversee the logistics of the president’s travels outside of the White House, security and military office. In an attempt to ensure he returns to someone qualified and with few options available, the person leaving the role, Dan Walsh, and Lindsay Reynolds, the chief of staff to Melania Trump, the first lady, have quickly opted for Mr. Ornato, who was well known. to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ornato did not want the job, according to three former White House officials. At that time, he was happily working at the headquarters of the Secret Service. Like many agents, he had served previous administrations across parties, first protecting President George W. Bush’s daughter, Barbara, and later working on details for President Barack Obama. And in any case, it would be highly unusual for an official from an openly apolitical agency to accept a high-ranking position in the White House.
But when Mr. Trump called to tell him he was putting it to work, he believed he had no choice but to take it, according to those officials. For the remainder of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Ornato was at the heart of the West Wing, occupying an office down the hall from the Oval Office and adjacent to the office of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior. advise.
Now, Mr. Ornato is at the center of a dispute over the events during the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. He is both a witness to key developments and a figure in what is either a legitimate battle for the credibility or, in the view of some critics, an attempt to blur the devastating account of the actions of Mr. Trump and his aides provided to the House committee on January 6 this week by Cassidy Hutchinson, another former aide to the White House.
In her public testimony, Ms. Hutchinson said she learned from Mr. Ornato of a stunning scene in the back of the presidential vehicle on January 6, shortly after Mr. Trump finished a speech at the Ellipse outside the White House.
She testified that Mr. Ornato told her that Mr. Trump tried to force the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol to join his supporters. In his account, Mr. Ornato said that Mr. Trump tried to grab the steering wheel of the armored vehicle.
Ms Hutchinson also said Mr Ornato told her the President had “rushed” his senior Secret Service agent, Robert Engel. Mr. Engel, Ms. Hutchinson said, was present when Mr. Ornato told her the story and did not correct Mr. Ornato’s account.
Secret Service officials said Mr. Ornato, Mr. Engel and the driver of the vehicle are prepared to testify that such an incident did not occur. (The committee had previously interviewed Mr. Ornato and Mr. Engel, prior to Ms. Hutchinson’s appearance this week.)
Officials do not dispute that Mr. Trump angrily demanded to be taken to the Capitol. On the day of the riot, Trump administration officials told The New York Times that the president was furious while at the rally.
A Secret Service official, asking that his name not be used to describe the potential testimony, acknowledged that a conversation took place with Ms Hutchinson, but said it happened differently than she had described .
January 6 committee officials have sought to bolster Ms Hutchinson’s credibility, saying they found inconsistencies in Mr Ornato’s testimony, although they have not released the transcripts in question. A former colleague, Alyssa Farah Griffin, accused him on Twitter to lie about an encounter they had during the 2020 protests in Lafayette Square outside the White House. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and member of the committee, wrote on the social media site“There seems to be a common thread here…Tony Ornato likes to lie.”
But Keith Kellogg, the former national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, has publicly vouched for Mr Ornato, as have other former officials.
“I think the guy is a straight shooter,” said John F. Kelly, the former White House chief of staff who publicly broke with Mr. Trump, and who worked with Mr. Ornato when he was the special agent in charge of Mr. Trump’s detail. “There was never a second thought in my mind that wherever we went, the job the Secret Service needed to do was done and done very well.”
A former senior Trump administration official recalled that Mr. Trump asked to be allowed to attend a major public event on one day’s notice, and Mr. Ornato bluntly informed him that such a decision would not was not possible.
During the early years of the Trump presidency, two former senior officials said, Mr. Ornato would periodically report to the chief of staff or one of his trusted aides what was called “limo talk,” the kind of directives or statements that Mr. Trump would make that he expected people to act on or that Mr. Ornato thought the leader should know about.
As the current deputy director of the Secret Service Office of Training, Mr. Ornato is based at Secret Service headquarters, although people close to the agency said he often travels to the training facility in Maryland. rural to speak with potential agents. He has held various leadership positions within the agency, including the New York field office.
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While there, he was responsible for all protective operations, including the important task of providing security for officials at the United Nations General Assembly.
Hailing from a town outside of New Haven, Connecticut, Mr. Ornato’s family owned a tavern in town that was a generational haunt for local police and firefighters. He worked in the New Haven Secret Service office in 2000 when Mr. Bush was running for president. When Mr. Bush won, Mr. Ornato joined his daughter’s protective detail. He remained under Mr. Obama and was promoted several times.
People who worked with Mr. Ornato in the Trump White House said they had never seen him speak about his political views, even when the former president asked for his opinion, as Mr. Trump was prone to doing it with almost everyone around him.
But some officials were uncomfortable with the decision to appoint a member of the Secret Service, which has long tried to maintain an image of impartiality, as deputy chief of staff for White House operations.
“Never, ever heard of it,” said Rand Beers, former acting secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “Even though Secret Service agents can be involved in some pretty sensitive stuff, some pretty embarrassing stuff, they preserve their image in that people don’t generally view them as being political by their silence.”
“All I can say,” he said, “is that it’s extraordinarily unusual.”
Luke Broadwater contributed report.