If Donald Trump ends up paying a high political or legal price for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, it may well be because Cassidy Hutchinson, one of his junior White House aides, was willing to speak out.
Hutchinson on Tuesday emerged as the surprise witness at a hastily arranged hearing of the congressional panel investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol last year.
Though the televised hearings have produced damning revelations of Trump’s desperate attempt to cling to power, Hutchinson, a soft-spoken and self-assured 25-year-old, delivered the most methodical inside account yet of the former president’s mood, actions and intentions that day.
Her recollections showed Trump not only fuelled the mob that assaulted the halls of Congress, but wanted to join it, disregarding the violence this might entail.
“As an American, I was disgusted,” Hutchinson said when asked by Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice-chair, about her reaction to Trump’s mid-afternoon tweet attacking his vice-president Mike Pence for not having the “courage” to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
“We were watching the Capitol building defaced over a lie,” she continued. “It was something that was really hard in that moment to digest, knowing what I’d been hearing down the hall and the conversations that were happening.”
The conversations as relayed by Hutchinson were as stunning as they were disturbing. She had worked in the West Wing as a close adviser to Mark Meadows, Trump’s last chief of staff, down the hallway from the Oval Office, and seemed to be trusted by everyone in those final days of his administration.
Her most gripping account was of Trump in the armoured black presidential SUV after his fiery speech to his supporters before they headed to the Capitol. It was based on a discussion with Tony Ornato, the deputy chief of staff and the liaison with the Secret Service. “Tony described him as irate,” Hutchinson said.
“The president said something to the effect of: ‘I’m the effing president, take me to the Capitol now’,” she recalled Ornato telling her. When Trump was told this would not be possible, he “reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel” but was stopped by a Secret Service agent named Robert Engel, who grabbed his arm. Trump then “used his free hand to lunge towards” Engel in a fit of rage, Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson already had a window into the former president’s fury in the weeks following his defeat to Biden, particularly in early December after William Barr, the attorney-general at the time, told the Associated Press that there was no widespread evidence of fraud in the election.
Hutchinson remembered hearing “noise coming from down the hallway” one day, and staff cleaning up a mess in the dining room. “There was ketchup dripping down the wall and there’s a shattered porcelain plate on the floor,” she said.
Hutchinson had started to seriously worry about January 6 four days beforehand, after talking to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and the former New York mayor.
“Cass, are you excited for the sixth? It’s going be a great day . . . we’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great,” he told her. When she asked Meadows what was going on, his response was foreboding. “There’s a lot going on, Cass, but I don’t know, things might get real, real bad on January 6,” she remembers him saying. Hutchinson said both Giuliani and Meadows later asked Trump for pardons in connection with the January 6 attacks.
But the likelihood of violence became very real on the morning of the attack after Ornato reported that a wide range of weapons was being brought to the president’s rally on the Ellipse, the park south of the White House, something Hutchinson said was not taken particularly seriously by Meadows.
Once Trump was on stage, he was even more dismissive, and wanted metal detectors in the area removed, Hutchinson said. “I overheard the president say something to the effect of . . . ‘I think that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me, take the effing mags [magnetometers] away. Let my people in, they can march the Capitol from here,’” she said.
After the Capitol was breached, she was privy to a tense conversation between Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Meadows, as they weighed whether to confront Trump.
“I remember Pat saying to [Meadows], something to the effect of: ‘Mark, we need to go down and see the president now,’” she said. “And Mark looked up at him and said: ‘He doesn’t want to do anything, Pat.’ And Pat said something to the effect of: ‘Mark, something needs to be done, or people are going to die. The blood’s going to be on your effing hands. This is getting out of control.’”
Hutchinson added that Cipollone told her he was worried they could be charged with “every crime imaginable” if Trump went to the Capitol.
In a sign of his nervousness about Hutchinson’s testimony, Trump went on his Truth Social platform on Tuesday afternoon to attack her for telling a “fake story” about the steering wheel, and said she was known for being a “phoney” and a “leaker”.
After the hearing, the US Secret Service issued a terse statement saying it had been cooperating with the panel and would continue doing so, including by “responding on the record” to the allegations that emerged on Tuesday. Some US media outlets reported that the allegations of physical assault by Trump would be disputed by the agents, but this could not be verified by the FT. Ornato did not respond to a request for comment.
But elsewhere Hutchinson’s surprise testimony, which lasted nearly two hours, was already being compared to the sudden, pivotal appearance of Alexander Butterfield as a witness in the Watergate scandal that engulfed then-president Richard Nixon, during which he testified about a secret White House taping system.
“We are all in her debt,” Cheney said of Hutchinson as she wrapped up the hearing and warned against any attempt by Trump’s allies to tamper with witnesses in the investigation.
“Our nation is preserved by those who abide by their oaths to our constitution. Our nation is preserved by those who know the fundamental difference between right and wrong. And I want all Americans to know that what Ms Hutchinson has done today is not easy,” she said.