WASHINGTON — Anthony Ornato had left his role as the Secret Service agent in charge of President Donald Trump’s protective detail in late 2019 when the culture of internal strife that 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, chief of staff to Melania Trump, the first lady, quickly settled on Ornato, who was well known to Trump.
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 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 Trump’s presidency, 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, 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 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, Hutchinson said she learned from Ornato of a stunning scene in the back of the presidential vehicle on Jan. 6, soon after a speech by Trump at the Ellipse outside the White House ended.
She testified that Ornato told her that Trump tried to force the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol to join his supporters. In her recounting, Ornato said Trump tried to grab the steering wheel of the armored vehicle.
Hutchinson also said Ornato told her the president “lunged” at his lead Secret Service agent, Robert Engel. Engel, Hutchinson testified, was present as Ornato related the story to her and did not correct Ornato’s account.
Secret Service officials have said Ornato, Engel and the driver of the vehicle are prepared to testify that such an incident did not happen. (The committee already had interviewed Ornato and Engel, before Hutchinson’s appearance this week.)
The officials do not dispute that 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 Hutchinson but said it played out differently than she described.
Officials with the Jan. 6 committee have sought to bolster Hutchinson’s credibility, saying they found inconsistencies in 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. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., 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, former national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, vouched for Ornato publicly, as did other former officials.
“I think the guy’s a straight shooter,” said John Kelly, a former White House chief of staff who has publicly broken with Trump, and who worked with Ornato when he was the special agent in charge of 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.”
Ornato is a native of a town outside New Haven, Connecticut. His 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 Bush was running for president. When Bush won, Ornato joined his daughter’s protective detail. He stayed on under Obama and was promoted a handful of times.
People who worked with 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 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.”