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Monday, December 09, 2019

'They'll Ruin My Life': Hutchinson Says Trump Team Coerced Her On Testimony

@Brandi_Buchman

Cassidy Hutchinson

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On Thursday, the House Select Committee published two transcripts from its extensive interviews with Cassidy Hutchinson, the former Trump White House aide who offered some of the most damning and explosive testimony to emerge from the 18-month probe of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

When she appeared publicly before the committee this summer, Hutchinson recounted how former President Donald Trump waved off warnings from his security detail about armed people in the crowd and urged that they be allowed to pass through metal detectors unmolested. She revealed learning about how Trump had lunged at the neck of his own Secret Service agent when his request to be ferried to the Capitol after the speech at the Ellipse was denied. She recalled the secrecy of her boss, former chief of staff Mark Meadows, who allegedly burned paperwork after a meeting with Rep. Scott Perry, an outspoken advocate of Trump’s Big Lie.

Hutchinson’s testimony was an embarrassment of riches for the committee, filling in blank spots left open by less-than-cooperative Trump White House officials. But the transcripts released Thursday also illuminate the huge pressure she came under by testifying.

Hutchinson told the committee that she recalled telling her mother plainly: “I’m fucked.”

She was “fucked,” she said, because she was effectively trapped.

She didn’t have the ability to shell out huge sums of cash to attorneys who could represent her when she went before the committee so was stuck with Stefan Passantino, a Trump White House lawyer whose fees were being paid by the former president’s Save America political action committee.

“I am completely indebted to these people,” she told her mother, the transcript shows. “And they will ruin my life Mom, if I do anything they don’t want me to do.”

She went to her estranged father, a Trump supporter, and asked him for help.

“I drove up to New Jersey, and I went to his house one night and begged him. It’s probably the one thing I regret in all of this, I wish I didn’t stoop to that level because it was a no— but I begged him to help me. I said I would pay him back, like, ‘name your interest rate,’” she said. “Like I just need help. And I remember saying to him, ‘you have no idea what they’re going to do to me if I have to get an attorney with Trump world,’ because he’s a very big Trump supporter, as is his own right, and I don’t—it’s not being critical, it’s just a fact. And he just didn’t get it. And I didn’t expect him to. But I just left there feeling defeated.”

Passantino, she told the committee, urged her to skimp on details when answering the investigator’s questions. He advised her to mislead the committee, she said, though she stressed that he did not instruct her to lie explicitly.

“I want to make this clear to you,” Hutchinson said. “Stefan never told me to lie. He specifically told me, ‘I don’t want you to perjure yourself but ‘I don’t recall’ isn’t perjury.”

She remembered him adding: “They don’t know what you can and can’t recall.”

He also suggested that she avoid meeting with the committee altogether when she had an appointment in June. She should consider drawing a contempt of Congress charge instead of testifying, he allegedly advised. It would be an unpleasant risk but a smaller one.

Hutchinson said Passantino told her, “running to the right is better for you.”

Passantino represented Hutchinson during three of her depositions before she hired a different attorney. The transcripts published on Thursday are dated Sept. 14 and Sept. 15, both dates when Passantino was not representing her. For these meetings, Hutchinson was represented by attorney Jody Hunt.

The committee has not yet published its final report in full or the complete record of its witness transcripts. Her earlier interviews under Passantino’s representation are expected to be included in that group.

When news first broke Wednesday about Passantino’s alleged advice to Hutchinson, he denied any wrongdoing in statements to reporters. Hutchinson, he said, was truthful and cooperative and he never instructed her to mislead the committee. His biography, meanwhile, has been pulled off the webpage of the law firm where he serves as partner.

During her initial interviews with the committee prior to September, Hutchinson said Trump aides would reach out to her. Jason Miller and Justin Clark extended potential job offers to her after she met with the select committee for the first time. The next time she was scheduled to testify, she said Ben Williamson, an aide to her former boss Mark Meadows called her on the eve of her appearance.

‘Mark wants me to let you know that he knows you’re loyal,” Williamson said in a voicemail, Hutchinson recalled. “He knows you’ll do the right thing tomorrow and that you’re going to protect him and the boss.”

The “boss” was watching, Passantino would later hint to her.

In one of her final exchanges with the lawyer, Hutchinson told the committee she remembered learning how Passantino had shared details of her interview with other Trump attorneys against her wishes. She said he shared some of the information with attorneys representing Mark Meadows, too.

This was the “first clear indicator,” she testified, that she was on her own.

“He doesn’t care about what I want, he doesn’t care about what I think is best for me, he’s doing what he thinks is best for Trump and people in Trump’s orbit,” she said.

When she finally broke off from Passantino, she described what had happened between them to the Justice Department, too.

“So, the question for me became where do my loyalties lie?” Hutchinson testified.

She said she “knew where they were” but the dynamic was terribly difficult anyway.

“I wasn’t equipped with people that allowed me and empowered me to be loyal to the country and loyal to the truth,” she said.

Describing her fear of what could have happened to her if she was to testify and remain connected to Trump-allied attorneys, the former White House aide said: “You know, I had seen this world ruin people’s lives or try to ruin people’s careers. I’d seen how vicious they can be.”

One of the most shocking bits of testimony to emerge almost didn’t.

Hutchinson told the select committee that Passantino urged her not to testify about what she had learned from Tony Ornato, the head of Trump’s Secret Service detail, after Ornato informed her Trump had freaked out and lunged at the head of his driver when he was told he would not be taken to the Capitol after his speech.

“I didn’t go into extremely graphic detail telling Stefan about it. I tried to kind of make it more casual than my conversation with Tony [Ornato] but I think I said something to— I said something to Stefan like, ‘yeah, i had a conversation with Tony Ornato when we got back from the rally that day and he told me that the president tried to wrap his hands around [driver] Bobby [Engel’s] neck and strangle him because he wouldn’t take him to the Capitol,” she said.

“And Stefan said, ‘no, no, no, no.’ I remember he like sat back in his char and he’s like, ‘no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there,’ she said.

He added: “We don’t need to talk about that.”

Hutchinson told the probe that Passantino tried to soothe her even as she raised concerns about the integrity of her testimony. The committee didn’t know how much she knew or not, he told her.

“You think they know, because you do,” she recalled him saying. “He’s like, but you’re doing the right thing.”

Other details that emerged from the transcript:

  • Hutchinson testified under oath that she spoke to McCarthy almost every day in the run-up to Jan. 6. When they spoke a few days before the insurrection, she recalled him remarking to her that her boss and Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows was leading Trump down a bad path.
    • “What’s Mark doing? What’s Mark thinking? He’s giving the president bad advice,” Hutchinson recalled McCarthy asking her.
  • Critically, Hutchinson testified that McCarthy told her Trump frequently acknowledged his electoral defeat in private but then quickly shifted gears and insisted he had to remain in the White House nonetheless. McCarthy allegedly told her he thought this attitude was being fomented by Meadows.
  • Hutchinson also testified that she believed Meadows was utilizing his aide Ben Williamson to get information about what she was doing with the select committee so he “wouldn’t be in the dark about anything,” she said. Historically, Williamson has denied such claims and in June when she appeared before the committee and reports surfaced that Meadows tapped Willamson to be his eyes and ears on her, Williamson denied the allegations saying that no one, not himself or Meadows, or anyone else, had tried to pressure her or tamper with her testimony

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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