Let’s talk about what is going on with the deleted Secret Service texts and the Jan. 6 probeJuly 20, 2022
The Jan. 6 committee was alerted on July 13 by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari that a series of United States Secret Service (USSS) text messages spanning Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 were erased. Cuffari informed the committee that messages were lost during a migration of data to new devices for Secret Service personnel. A spokesperson for the Secret Service initially said the messages were not lost permanently, and aggressively defended against accusations that messages were erased maliciously.
So, the select committee responded by issuing a subpoena to the Secret Service for the Jan. 5-6 texts. Committee members were briefed privately by Cuffari in person on July 15, and Cuffari reportedly told them that the Secret Service did not conduct its own after-action review regarding Jan. 6, choosing instead to rely on whatever might turn up in Cuffari’s pending inspector general report on the security failures of Jan. 6.
At the briefing with members of the select committee, Cuffari said he didn’t feel the Secret Service was “fully cooperating” with him, according to Jan. 6 committee chairman Bennie Thompson. The DHS inspector general reportedly said he ran those concerns about the missing messages up the ladder to DHS Secretary Alexander Mayorkas though not to much avail. Mayorkas, CNN reported, only told him to keep pushing for the information from the agency.
Members of the Jan. 6 committee hit the weekend talk show circuit after issuing the subpoena. Investigators like Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Adam Kinzinger said they expected the Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 texts would be turned over by Tuesday.
More questions mounted in the press. By Tuesday afternoon, the National Archives ordered Damian Kokinda, the records officer for the Department of Homeland Security, to have the Secret Service investigate exactly how the messages were deleted and then produce a report on their findings within a month.
But then, another wrinkle emerged.
CNN reported late Tuesday night that it obtained a letter sent to the Jan. 6 committee stating the Secret Service was only able to provide a single text exchange to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general from the requested Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 time period.
According to Secret Service assistant director Ronald Rowe:
“The Secret Service submitted the responsive records it identified, namely, a text message conversation from former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund to former Secret Service Uniformed Division Chief Thomas Sullivan requesting assistance on January 6, 2021, and advised the agency did not have any further records responsive to the DHS OIG’s request for text messages.”
Rowe’s letter also reportedly revealed that Cuffari asked for the texts in question (as well as others spanning Dec. 7, 2020, to Jan. 8, 2021) in June 2021.
This is an important distinction because, to start, the Secret Service was first asked by congress to preserve its records and produce other documents just 10 days after the Capitol attack on Jan. 16. Then, three months later, in March, a smattering of congressional committees asked the Secret Service again to preserve and produce records, but narrowed their requests to only those records sent and received between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7, 2021.
Though CNN did not publish the letter the committee received from Rowe on Tuesday, the outlet said Rowe did write that it was “up to employees to conduct the necessary preservation of records from their phones” and that Secret Service staff were given explicit, “step-by-step” instructions on how to preserve phone data before a pre-planned device migration that was set to begin on Jan. 27, 2021.
“It went on to explain that ‘all Secret Service employees are responsible for appropriately preserving government records that may be created via text messaging,’” the letter stated.
Rowe said too that the agency would keep looking into “whether any relevant text messages sent or received by 24 individuals identified by the DHS OIG were lost due to the Intune migration and, if so, whether such texts are recoverable.”
The Secret Service is expected to review metadata too and interview the 24 personnel flagged by Cuffari in order “to determine if messages were stored in locations that were not already searched by the Secret Service.”
There have been just under 11,000 pages of records provided to the select committee since investigators hit the agency with its subpoena last week.
Government watchdog groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) are following the details closely.
The group’s chief counsel Donald Sherman urged the Department of Justice to investigate immediately because the Secret Service very likely violated the Federal Records Act, he said.
“It is especially distressing to see such behavior from a federal agency that had such critical duties during the attack on the Capitol and had a front row seat to former President Trump’s behavior that day. The Justice Department must take this apparent violation of federal law seriously,” Sherman said.
The role of the Secret Service around key moments leading up to the insurrection has taken on greater import in the wake of the select committee’s public hearings.
When former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified under oath, she recounted many shocking details of that day and chief among them were her accounts that 1) Trump knew the mob was heavily armed and encouraged them to speed past security measures and magnetometers anyway and 2) members of the Trump’s Secret Service detail had plans to take Trump to the Capitol after his speech at the Ellipse for an “off-the-record” movement despite warnings of violence deluging security agencies all over Washington, including the U.S. Secret Service.
In one email obtained by the committee and aired publicly during a recent hearing, the Secret Service Intelligence Division is shown explicitly highlighting the threats it saw growing. One forwarded warning read: “We need to flood the Capital Building and show America and the senators and representatives inside voting that we won’t stand for election fraud.”
Committee vicechair Liz Cheney noted how caveats like these were sent often and regularly to key security staff at the White House like, specifically, Tony Ornato, then the deputy White House chief of staff for operations.
Hutchinson’s testimony about Ornato and her testimony that Trump lunged at Secret Service agent Bobby Engel’s neck when he refused to drive Trump to the Capitol after his speech on Jan. 6, prompted the Secret Service to refute Hutchinson’s sworn statements publicly.
USSS spokesperson Anthony Gugliemi said both Ornato and Engel would be willing to testify under oath. Other unnamed sources told NBC that neither Ornato nor Engel denied that Trump was irate or that he demanded to be taken to the Capitol. Trump, this past April in an interview with The Washington Post aired his still lingering frustrations about not being taken to the Capitol.
“Secret Service said I couldn’t go. I would have gone there in a minute,” Trump said.
The historic closeness of certain agents to Trump has cast doubt over the agency’s official positions and credibility.
Tony Ornato, for example, left his role heading up Trump’s Secret Service security detail to take on the political appointment of deputy White House chief of staff or operations. This was done to much controversy, and in the end, it gave Ornato the power to oversee the Secret Service and its relationship with the White House. Today, Ornato has returned to the civil service and works as the assistant director at the Secret Service’s Office of Training.
Renowned investigative journalist Carol Leonnig, who has spent years studying the machinations of the U.S. Secret Service, appeared on MSNBC last month and said to her knowledge, many in Trump’s security detail were “aligned” with the former president politically and appeared to support the actions of the mob.
Questions continue to stack up as the agency engages with the committee and a representative for the probe did not return a request for comment about how this may or may not factor into the probe’s next (and expected to be final) public hearing on Thursday, July 21 at 8 PM ET.
RELATED STORY: No texts to recover, Secret Service tells Jan. 6 committee