Anthony M. Ornato had left his role as the Secret Service agent in charge of President Donald J. Trump’s protective detail in late 2019 when the culture of internal strife that Mr. Trump fostered throughout his term left the president’s top advisers frantically searching for a candidate to fill a key role: deputy White House chief of staff for operations.
The title does not fully capture the significance of the job, which entails ensuring the continuity of government and overseeing the logistics of the president’s movements outside the White House, security and the military office. Intent on ensuring it went 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, quickly settled on Mr. Ornato, who was well known to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Ornato did not want the job, according to three former White House officials. By that point he was happily working at Secret Service headquarters. Like many agents, he had served previous administrations across party lines, first protecting President George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara and later working on President Barack Obama’s detail. And in any case, it would be highly unusual for an official from an avowedly apolitical agency to take a high-ranking job inside the White House.
But when Mr. Trump called to tell him he was putting him in the job, 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 steps down the hall from the Oval Office and adjacent to the office of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Now, Mr. Ornato is at the center of a dispute over events during the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He is both a witness to key developments and a figure in what is either a legitimate battle over credibility or, in the view of some critics, an attempt to muddy the devastating account of the actions of Mr. Trump and his aides provided to the House Jan. 6 committee this week by Cassidy Hutchinson, another former White House aide.
In her public testimony, Ms. Hutchinson said she learned from Mr. Ornato of a stunning scene in the back of the presidential vehicle on Jan. 6, soon after a speech by Mr. Trump at the Ellipse outside the White House ended.
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 her recounting, Mr. Ornato said Mr. Trump tried to grab the steering wheel of the armored vehicle.
Ms. Hutchinson also said Mr. Ornato told her the president “lunged” at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel. Mr. Engel, Ms. Hutchinson testified, was present as Mr. Ornato related the story to her and did not correct Mr. Ornato’s account.
Secret Service officials have said Mr. Ornato, Mr. Engel and the driver of the vehicle are prepared to testify that such an incident did not happen. (The committee already had interviewed Mr. Ornato and Mr. Engel, before Ms. Hutchinson’s appearance this week.)
The 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 in a fury while he was at the rally.
One Secret Service official, asking that his name not be used to describe the potential testimony, acknowledged a conversation took place with Ms. Hutchinson but said it played out differently than she described.
Officials with the Jan. 6 committee have sought to bolster Ms. Hutchinson’s credibility, saying they found inconsistencies in Mr. Ornato’s testimony, although they did not release the transcripts in question. A former colleague, Alyssa Farah Griffin, accused him on Twitter of lying about an encounter they had during the 2020 protests in Lafayette Square outside the White House. Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the committee, wrote on the social media site, “There seems to be a major thread here… Tony Ornato likes to lie.”
But Keith Kellogg, the former national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, vouched for Mr. Ornato publicly, as did other former officials.
“I think the guy’s a straight shooter,” said John F. Kelly, the former White House chief of staff who has publicly broken 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 work the Secret Service needed to do was done and done really well.”
A former senior official in the Trump administration recalled Mr. Trump demanding to be allowed to attend a major public event with a day’s notice, and Mr. Ornato bluntly informing him that such a move was not possible.
In the first few years of the Trump presidency, two former senior officials said, Mr. Ornato would periodically flag for the chief of staff or one of his trusted aides what was known as “limo talk,” the kind of directives or pronouncements that Mr. Trump would make that he either expected people to act on or which Mr. Ornato thought the chief should be aware of.
As the current assistant director of the Office of Training at the Secret Service, Mr. Ornato is based at Secret Service headquarters, although those close to the agency said he often made trips to the training facility in rural Maryland to speak with prospective agents. He has held various leadership positions in the agency, including in the New York field office.
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While there, he was responsible for all protective operations, including the prominent assignment of ensuring officials were safe at the U.N. General Assembly.
A native of a town outside New Haven, Conn., Mr. Ornato’s family owned a tavern in the city that was a generational haunt for local police officers and firefighters. He worked in the New Haven Secret Service office in 2000 as Mr. Bush was running for president. When Mr. Bush won, Mr. Ornato joined his daughter’s protective detail. He stayed on under Mr. Obama, and was promoted a handful of times.
People who worked with Mr. Ornato in the Trump White House said they had never seen him talking about his political opinions, even when the former president sought his views, as Mr. Trump was prone to do with almost everyone around him.
But some officials were uncomfortable with the decision to name a member of the Secret Service, which has long tried to maintain the image of nonpartisanship, to deputy chief of staff of operations at the White House.
“Never, ever heard of it,” said Rand Beers, a former acting secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “Even though the Secret Service detailees can be involved in some pretty sensitive things, pretty embarrassing things, they preserve their image in that people don’t generally think of them as being political by their silence.”
“All I can say,” he said, “is that is extraordinarily unusual.”
Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.
Source: The New York Times