The January 6 investigation renews questions about the independence of the secret services

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Shortly after Donald Trump took office in 2017, the US secret service faced a scandal.

Kerry O’Grady, the special agent in charge of the agency’s Denver office, posted a private message on Facebook last October after the Washington Post revealed the existence of a video in which Trump described groping women.

“I would take jail time for a bullet or an endorsement for what I believe is a disaster for this country and the strong and incredible women and minorities who reside here,” O’Grady wrote. She added, “I’m with her” – a reference to Hillary Clinton’s running for office.

The message was leaked to reporter to the conservative Washington Examiner after O’Grady updated her Facebook profile to indicate her support for the anti-Trump “resistance” movement on the day of the Women’s March on Washington. The public attention helped spark official investigations into O’Grady and, ultimately, a demotion, later overturned.

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In his book “Zero Fail”, Post reporter Carol Leonnig tells O’Grady’s story in part to show how the unique nature of the 2016 election spurred even a longtime Secret Service official to new political activism. But she also shares O’Grady’s story to make another point: that O’Grady’s offense was, in part, that she expressed the bad taste politics.

No supervisor complained about field office officers who had ‘Make America Great Again’ hats on their desks,” Leonnig wrote. “Supervisors hadn’t raised the same harsh objections when friends at work shared ‘Crooked Hillary’ memes that depicted the red-eyed, pointy-eared former Secretary of State as a devil, or traded rude jokes about her inability to satisfy her husband.”

Many agents, Leonnig wrote, were “happy to see the man who spoke their language” assume the presidency.

The ongoing investigation into the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 has brought new attention to the political independence of the Secret Service. Last week, Leonnig and Maria Sacchetti of The Post reported a startling new development: the agency had deleted a number of text messages sent and received by agents during the time of the attack. This was attributed to a “device replacement program” – returning old devices and receiving new ones – but the agency’s inspector general said the removals only happened after his office had asked for the texts.

In a statement, the Secret Service said it was “cooperating … in every way” with the investigation. He also said the migration “was well underway” when the inspector general’s request was made.

Such errors happen. A number of messages between two FBI officials involved in Trump’s counter-narrative on the Russia investigation disappeared during the device transfers, although they were eventually recovered. The missing Secret Service messages from the period around the riot, however, reflect a different set of concerns, given the way some agents gave public praise for the day’s events.

“A Secret Service officer called armed protesters ‘patriots’ seeking to overturn an illegitimate election and falsely claimed to his friends that disguised Antifa members had sparked the violence,” Leonnig reported in ‘Zero Fail’ . “A presidential retail agent reposted a popular anti-Biden screed that criticized Democrats for their relentless attacks on Trump.”

An agent “reposted an image of an upside-down American flag, a military signal of extreme distress,” she added, along with language critical of coronavirus containment measures and the political left. The post concluded: “Then they blamed us for the coup.” That some Secret Service agents were sympathetic to the incumbent should not have come as a surprise, Leonnig reports, since “many agents were applauding Trump’s re-election.”

The texting issue came weeks after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson gave stunning testimony before the House Select Committee investigating efforts to nullify the 2020 election. new revelations, Hutchinson had learned that Trump had attempted to physically divert his presidential vehicle to the Capitol after his speech near the White House on Jan. 6. Hutchinson said he heard this from Tony Ornato, himself a controversial figure within the agency.

Ornato has grown close to Trump as the head of his personal security service. Trump, who for decades had promoted allies (including security personnel) to higher positions, wanted to make Ornato the head of the Secret Service after he fired the agency’s director in 2019. When Ornato refused, Trump instead transferred him to a position within his administration. : deputy chief of staff of operations. Such a transition from an apolitical officer to a political appointee was unprecedented in the agency’s history.

In his new role, Ornato was at the center of one of the most infamous pre-election incidents of Trump’s tenure: the clearing of Lafayette Square of protesters on June 1, 2020.

A report last year centered on the actions of US Park Police determined that the plaza just north of the White House needed to be cleared and reinforced even before Trump’s trip to a damaged church just beyond the park. . However, the role of the secret services has not been examined in this report. The Secret Service joined the Park Police in protecting Lafayette Square, and it was uniformed Secret Service agents who first moved in to clean up the square shortly before Trump left the White House.

There has been a lot of revisionism over the incident. It is clear, however, that the square was cleared because Trump was planning to cross it. This is evident from Attorney General William P. Barr’s question to the Park Police when he visited the scene shortly before Trump emerged: “Will these people still be around when POTUS comes out?”

This is also suggested by Ornato’s involvement. Ornato joined Barr in touring the square less than an hour before it was cleared. As The Post reported at the time, Ornato “has contacted the Secret Service to arrange a brief appearance for the president at the church, according to two people familiar with the plans.” The Secret Service informed other law enforcement that they would need assistance. Minutes after Barr and Ornato left the area, Secret Service agents at the north end of the plaza began moving in to clear the scene, the first law enforcement agents to do so.

After Hutchinson testified that he heard about Trump’s efforts to seize the wheel of the presidential limo, Ornato denied saying so through a spokesperson. (A Secret Service request for comment for this article was not responded to in a timely manner.) As Aaron Blake of the Post has documented, however, Ornato’s denials have been repeatedly challenged in the past.

Again, Ornato is simply the most obvious example of questions about the agency’s response to the 2020 election. As Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Post reported in their book “Only I Can Fix It” there are indications that Vice President Mike Pence was suspicious of the Secret Service’s response to the riot itself. While agents persuaded Pence to leave the Capitol, he refused, insisting on remaining in the building to finalize the electoral vote count confirming Trump’s loss (and his loss).

“I trust you, Tim,” Pence told his security chief Tim Giebels, “but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you’re leaving. I’m not getting in the car.

At the White House, Pence’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, was making a similar point to Ornato. Ornato indicated that the Secret Service planned to move Pence to Joint Base Andrews.

“You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg said, according to reports from Leonnig and Rucker. “Leave him where he is. He has a job to do. I know you too well. You’ll take it to Alaska if you get the chance. Do not do it.

In a recent interviewLeonnig explained the significance of this discussion.

Ornato, she said, “was considered so pro-Trump that he was under suspicion — even though he’s a professional, he’s a career Secret Service agent — he was under suspicion by the vice president. , one of his top aides, of being someone who would try to remove Vice President Pence from the Capitol at a critical time.

But Ornato, once again, denies having had this discussion with Kellogg. This prompted former White House staffer Olivia Troye to ask Ornato to testify under oath. After all, she wrote on Twitter, “those of us who have worked with Tony know where his loyalty lies.”

Ornato is now back in the Secret Service, portion as deputy director of the agency’s training department. His first appearance in “Zero Fail” occurs against the backdrop of the initial investigation into Kerry O’Grady for displaying overt partisanship. She had been picked up at Washington airport, ordered to hand over her firearm and taken to the Secret Service’s Internal Affairs Division.

“While she was waiting to walk into an interview room,” Leonnig reports, “Tony Ornato, Trump’s head of detail and a colleague she knew well, walked out of that same room and gave a look. black to O’Grady. “Hi, Tony,” she said, but he walked away without answering.

She had bad political taste.

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