In testimony that shook the country this week, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to then–White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, described an altercation between Donald Trump and his own Secret Service to force agents to take him to the ongoing insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Under oath, she testified that Tony Ornato, Trump’s White House deputy chief of staff, told her the story with Bobby Engel, Trump’s Secret Service lead, in the room. She recounted in great detail a struggle for the wheel after Engel allegedly disobeyed a direct order from Trump: “The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel,” she testified. “Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, ‘Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel, we’re going back to the West Wing, we’re not going to the Capitol.’ Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel.”
Denials have since crept out that this ever happened. Carol Leonnig is not surprised by them. A Washington Post national investigative reporter who has been breaking Secret Service news for years, Leonnig is the author of Zero Fail, a new book that digs into the landmark incidents of the agency’s history. To find out just how extraordinary this all was and what to make of the denials, I called her on Thursday. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: You wrote the book on the Secret Service’s history. Where do the revelations from the Jan. 6 panel rank in that history?
Carol Leonnig: The Secret Service is a silent witness to all kinds of American history, some of it tragic, some of it very controversial. Sometimes it’s very intimate, involving the lives of the president and his family. I think the congressional committee hearings this week laid bare two important things about the Secret Service: One, they hate to be in the middle of a story and embroiled in a controversial matter involving the people they protect—they just want to protect the boss and stay in the shadows. But this has forced them to literally swear under oath what they saw and what they heard the president say and do.
The second thing it has revealed is the closeness that develops, the almost symbiotic relationship that develops, between a president and their protector. In the case of Donald Trump, that closeness was intense, and many people in the Secret Service sought to deliver whatever plan Donald Trump had crafted for his day. They sought to enable it. And in this rare moment, as a melee was about to break out on the Capitol, and as people were chanting to hang Mike Pence, the president’s detail drew a line in the sand and refused the president’s direct order. That’s a major deal in the Secret Service, because generally, unless something is incredibly impossible or dangerously untenable, the Secret Service will try to do what the president wants.
Right, Trump was president.
Their job is to make sure that the leader of the free world is alive the next day. And so they have to make a decision based on protecting his life. They can’t just do what he wants if it endangers his life. And that was the calculus that they made that day.
How are people inside the Secret Service reacting to this all going public?
I have been in contact with many Secret Service sources who are familiar with Bobby Engel’s and Tony Ornato’s account of that day, and they say that both men deny any assault took place, and Tony denies ever suggesting an assault took place. I haven’t talked to Tony or Bobby directly—I want to be clear about that. It’s Secret Service sources briefed on the two men’s accounts of Jan. 6.
What do you make of those denials?
I think we have to hear their testimony under oath. Cassidy Hutchinson gave an account of what she says Tony told her under oath. She was very, very specific with what Tony did with his hands to indicate the president touching the agent’s clavicle. She was very specific about the words Tony used and what her responses were, which I think lends to her credibility. So now it’s time to hear from the agents that dispute this, and to hear from them under oath.
People who work for Donald Trump and work for any president are going to be loath to say anything unflattering about the president. Even if it were true, they view it as a breach. It’s hard for me to imagine President Obama’s detail leader saying something that would reflect negatively on President Obama. It doesn’t mean the agent loves the president. It means that they view it as a breach.
Were the Trump years particularly extraordinary for the Secret Service? The bathroom outside the Kushner house made big news, but what else have you heard?
I wrote that story in the Post! I wrote in my book that the Trump years were very, very difficult for the Secret Service in two ways. One, because Trump busted all norms and ignored most laws and rules, and two, the Secret Service became increasingly politicized. He bullied and pressured the Secret Service to implement his will. He eventually installed a loyalist in the White House from the Secret Service to make sure that he got what he wanted from the agency. The other problem was that he did not do anything to take care of the agency itself. He endangered agents and officers by taking them out across the country as COVID was surging, before vaccines were available, so that he could have campaign rallies. And he failed to do anything to improve the Secret Service’s strained finances. They were providing security details to more than 40 people, including extended Trump family members, but they were not getting any additional funding to do that. So they were really drowning in assignments without enough resources and money and people.
What episodes can you think of from the past that might rise to the level of what Trump reportedly did, or close to it?
None. The only thing I can think of is when Lyndon Johnson threatened to shoot out the tires of a follow-up car. The Secret Service was following him around his farm to protect him, and Lyndon Johnson was furious because he believed the agents were unnecessary and they were scaring off the game that he was hunting, messing up his ability to hunt. And, so in a fit, Johnson said, “I’m going to shoot out the tires of the car if you guys get any closer.”
What about the Clinton years during the affair investigation? The Secret Service was reportedly miserable then, too.
I’m so glad you brought up that Clinton moment, because the Lewinsky investigation both petrified and paralyzed the Secret Service. An independent counsel was trying to get Secret Service agents to tell him about the most private moments you can imagine of a president—him attempting to woo a young intern in the Oval Office. Agents and the director at the time, Lew Merletti, made the argument that breaching the agency confidence with the president would ultimately harm and endanger the president’s life. If that confidence was shattered by investigators, then presidents would keep agents far removed—the men and women who stood outside their door, next to their bedroom, and sat in the limo with them in their most private moments—to avoid them overhearing or seeing something that a president didn’t want them to see or hear. The danger, Merletti argued, was that a president had to have agents close enough to remove him in seconds from a threat.
Jerry Parr, famously the detail leader for Ronald Reagan, was able to—in a matter of seconds, as John Hinckley fired six or seven shots at close range—was able to get the president slammed into a limo in time to save his life. And if he had been many more feet away, Reagan likely would’ve died. So the Secret Service view is we have to be dang close or we’re not worth anything, and we have to keep a president’s confidence and the family’s confidence or we won’t be allowed close. That’s what’s at stake.