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Cassidy Hutchinson: Why the Jan. 6 Committee Rushed Her Testimony

WASHINGTON — The day before Cassidy Hutchinson was deposed for a fourth time by the Jan. 6 committee, the former Trump White House aide received …

Cassidy Hutchinson: Why the Jan. 6 Committee Rushed Her Testimony
11.07.2022 01:52

WASHINGTON — The day before Cassidy Hutchinson was deposed for a fourth time by the Jan. 6 committee, the former Trump White House aide received a phone message that would dramatically change the plans of the panel and write a new chapter in American politics.

On that day in June, the caller told Ms. Hutchinson, as Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chairwoman, later disclosed: A person “let me know you have your deposition tomorrow. He wants me to let you know he’s thinking about you. He knows you’re loyal. And you’re going to do the right thing when you go in for your deposition.”

At Ms. Hutchinson’s deposition the next day, committee members investigating the attack on the Capitol were so alarmed by what they considered a clear case of witness tampering — not to mention Ms. Hutchinson’s shocking account of President Donald J. Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6, 2021 — that they decided in a meeting on June 24, a Friday, to hold an emergency public hearing with Ms. Hutchinson as the surprise witness the following Tuesday.

The speed, people close to the committee said, was for two crucial reasons: Ms. Hutchinson was under intense pressure from Trump World, and panel members believed that getting her story out in public would make her less vulnerable, attract powerful allies and be its own kind of protection. The committee also had to move fast, the people said, to avoid leaks of some of the most explosive testimony ever heard on Capitol Hill.

In the two weeks since, Ms. Hutchinson’s account of an unhinged president who urged his armed supporters to march to the Capitol, lashed out at his Secret Service detail and hurled his lunch against a wall has turned her into a figure of both admiration and scorn — lauded by Trump critics as a 21st-century John Dean and attacked by Mr. Trump as a “total phony.”

Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony also pushed the committee to redouble its efforts to interview Pat A. Cipollone, Mr. Trump’s White House counsel, who appeared in private before the panel on Friday. His videotaped testimony is expected to be shown at the committee’s next public hearing on Tuesday.

Ms. Hutchinson and Representative Liz Cheney, the vice chairwoman of the Jan. 6 committee, have developed an unlikely bond.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Now unemployed and sequestered with family and a security detail, Ms. Hutchinson, 26, has developed an unlikely bond with Ms. Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and onetime aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during the George W. Bush administration — a crisis environment of another era when she learned to work among competing male egos. More recently, as someone ostracized by her party and stripped of her leadership post for her denunciations of Mr. Trump, Ms. Cheney admires the younger woman’s willingness to risk her alliances and professional standing by recounting what she saw in the final days of the Trump White House, friends say.

“I have been incredibly moved by young women that I have met and that have come forward to testify in the Jan. 6 committee,” Ms. Cheney said in concluding a recent speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

When she mentioned Ms. Hutchinson’s name, the audience erupted in applause.

Influence Beyond Her Years

The path that led a young Trump loyalist to become a star witness against the former president was not exactly prefigured by Ms. Hutchinson’s biography.

Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings

Card 1 of 7

Making a case against Trump. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack is laying out evidence that could allow prosecutors to indict former President Donald J. Trump, though the path to a criminal trial is uncertain. Here are the main themes that have emerged so far:

An unsettling narrative. During the first hearing, the committee described in vivid detail what it characterized as an attempted coup orchestrated by the former president that culminated in the assault on the Capitol. At the heart of the gripping story were three main players: Mr. Trump, the Proud Boys and a Capitol Police officer.

Creating election lies. In its second hearing, the panel showed how Mr. Trump ignored aides and advisers as he declared victory prematurely and relentlessly pressed claims of fraud he was told were wrong. “He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” William P. Barr, the former attorney general, said of Mr. Trump during a videotaped interview.

Pressuring Pence. Mr. Trump continued pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to go along with a plan to overturn his loss even after he was told it was illegal, according to testimony laid out by the panel during the third hearing. The committee showed how Mr. Trump’s actions led his supporters to storm the Capitol, sending Mr. Pence fleeing for his life.

Fake elector plan. The committee used its fourth hearing to detail how Mr. Trump was personally involved in a scheme to put forward fake electors. The panel also presented fresh details on how the former president leaned on state officials to invalidate his defeat, opening them up to violent threats when they refused.

Strong arming the Justice Department. During the fifth hearing, the panel explored Mr. Trump’s wide-ranging and relentless scheme to misuse the Justice Department to keep himself in power. The panel also presented evidence that at least half a dozen Republican members of Congress sought pre-emptive pardons.

The surprise hearing. Cassidy Hutchinson, ​​a former White House aide, delivered explosive testimony during the panel’s sixth session, saying that the president knew the crowd on Jan. 6 was armed, but wanted to loosen security. She also painted Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff in the Trump administration, as disengaged and unwilling to act as rioters approached the Capitol.

She grew up in Pennington, N.J., a one-square-mile village dating back to the 1600s whose most famous previous resident was Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws.” Her father owned a tree-trimming service.

No one in her family had gone to college, but in 2015 Ms. Hutchinson left home for Christopher Newport University, an under-the-radar liberal arts institution in Newport News, Va., with a strict dress code.

Ms. Hutchinson selected political science as her major. She took two classes taught by the department chair at the time, Michelle Barnello.

“We have a fairly conservative student body, and while I think of Cassidy as someone who was committed to Republican principles, she didn’t stand out as a hard-liner,” Dr. Barnello said.

She remembered Ms. Hutchinson as convivial but also determined, and that she often sat in the front row of the classroom with her lacrosse-playing boyfriend.

Students at Christopher Newport University in 2019.Credit…Jonathon Gruenke/The Virginian-Pilot, via Associated Press

In 2017, a year after spending a summer interning for Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, Ms. Hutchinson and her boyfriend each became summer interns for Republican House members — in her case, for Representative Steve Scalise, then the majority whip, who in June of that year was shot while playing softball with Republican colleagues. The following spring, Ms. Hutchinson was accepted for a White House internship, a celebrated achievement at Christopher Newport. The campus website and the political science department’s Facebook page posted stories about their high-achieving junior.

By luck of the draw, Ms. Hutchinson’s internship was in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs — where, unlike the coffee-fetching and tour-guiding requirements of a Capitol Hill internship, enrollees are expected to take notes at high-level meetings and to interact with senior staff members and House members. Former Trump White House officials said Ms. Hutchinson distinguished herself from the other interns as a hard worker with a good attitude. On graduation she landed a permanent job as the junior-most staff assistant on the House side of the Trump presidency’s legislative affairs operation, at a salary of $43,600.

“She kind of came in and took the place by storm,” said a former White House official, who like others who spoke highly of Ms. Hutchinson and asked for anonymity to avoid the public wrath of Mr. Trump and his allies. “Just an incredibly smart and driven person. She was the sort of person who worked so hard, I often had to tell her to slow down so that she wouldn’t burn out.”

During the first impeachment of Mr. Trump in 2019, Ms. Hutchinson was among the handful of legislative affairs staff members tasked with shoring up support among disgruntled House Republicans for the embattled president. In the end, not one of them defected, a triumph that reflected well on every White House staff member involved, including Ms. Hutchinson.

Some colleagues found it presumptuous that the young assistant so quickly came to refer to House members by their first names. But others could see that it worked: Ms. Hutchinson, they said, developed exceptionally strong contacts with representatives during her first year on the job.

“Trust me, nobody ever sat down and said, ‘Hey, Cassidy, you’re being too chummy with the members,’” recalled another colleague who asked for anonymity out of fear of inciting Mr. Trump. “You can be one of those assistants who’s rarely on the Hill. Or you could be like Cassidy, who took every advantage to help her get a better job in the future.”

Which quickly occurred. Ms. Hutchinson’s backstage work during the impeachment hearings put her in frequent contact with the influential chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Representative Mark Meadows. When he became Mr. Trump’s chief of staff in March 2020, he promptly poached Ms. Hutchinson from the legislative affairs office as his special assistant.

Ms. Hutchinson was frequently in contact with members of Congress on Mark Meadows’s behalf.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Her influence was soon apparent. Republican aides on Capitol Hill learned that Ms. Hutchinson was the way to get to Mr. Meadows, and that if they texted him she might be the one responding. She was in frequent contact on Mr. Meadows’s behalf with leading House Republicans like Representatives Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan and Elise Stefanik. One former colleague recalled that there were times when Mr. Meadows got staff members taken off Air Force One to make room for Ms. Hutchinson.

Some staff members begrudged her rise. “I think she became a victim of her own access and success,” said Ms. Hutchinson’s friend, Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump White House communications director. “I’m sure that more senior people resented her for it.”

A New Lawyer

Early this year, a federal marshal knocked on Ms. Hutchinson’s door and served her with a subpoena to appear before the Jan. 6 committee. Unemployed and unable to pay for legal fees, she hired as her lawyer Stefan Passantino, a former Trump White House ethics lawyer. Mr. Trump’s Save America PAC paid for Mr. Passantino’s representation of Ms. Hutchinson, as it did for some other witnesses called before the panel.

Mr. Passantino had extensive financial ties to Mr. Trump’s orbit. Federal Election Commission reports show that his legal compliance firm received more than $1 million from Trump-related political action committees in the 2021-22 election cycle, and that in the previous cycle Marjorie Taylor Greene, a staunch Trump loyalist and a House candidate at the time, paid him more than $93,000 for his services.

Ms. Hutchinson’s first deposition to the committee was on Feb. 23, when it was not yet apparent to her that Mr. Passantino’s interests as a Trump affiliate might diverge from hers, two people close to the situation said. What was clear were her disclosures that morning and in two subsequent depositions to committee members, who found them startling as well as clear evidence of her proximity to power.

According to portions of her first three depositions made public, Ms. Hutchinson said she had heard Anthony M. Ornato, the deputy White House chief of staff, warn Mr. Meadows that intelligence reports were forecasting violence several days before Jan. 6. She also testified that by late November 2020, House Republicans were already pushing a plan for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election results.

But Ms. Hutchinson took pains to avoid speculating about the president. “I can’t speak to if Mr. Trump — yeah, I’ll leave it there,” she said at one point.

Ms. Hutchinson initially took pains to avoid speculating about Mr. Trump.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

Over the next months, Ms. Hutchinson warmed to the idea of helping the committee’s investigation, according to a friend, but she did not detect the same willingness in Mr. Passantino.

“She realized she couldn’t call her attorney to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got more information,’” said the friend, who requested anonymity. “He was there to insulate the big guy.”

Mr. Passantino declined to comment.

At that point Ms. Hutchinson got in touch with Ms. Griffin, who had been cooperating with the committee herself. Ms. Griffin passed on Ms. Hutchinson’s concerns to Barbara Comstock, a former Republican congresswoman and outspoken critic of Mr. Trump. In an interview, Ms. Comstock said that she could have predicted Ms. Hutchinson’s predicament, recalling how she had once talked a young man out of joining the Trump administration. “I said, ‘You’re going to end up paying legal bills,’” Ms. Comstock recalled.

Ms. Comstock offered to start a legal-defense fund so that Ms. Hutchinson would not have to rely on a lawyer paid for by Trump affiliates. But this proved unnecessary. Jody Hunt, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil division under Jeff Sessions — Mr. Trump’s former attorney general and another pariah in Mr. Trump’s world — offered to represent her pro bono. Mr. Hunt accompanied Ms. Hutchinson to her fourth deposition in late June, when she felt more comfortable talking about Mr. Trump’s actions on Jan. 6. Everyone agreed it was time to speed up her public testimony.

Two realities have now taken hold for Ms. Hutchinson. One is that she will continue to offer information to the Jan. 6 committee, with Mr. Hunt as her counsel and Ms. Cheney as the committee’s designated interlocutor to her.

The other is that an uncertain future awaits her.

A former colleague in the White House legislative affairs office who remains on friendly terms with Ms. Hutchinson said that from the moment she got her subpoena, her goal in cooperating with the committee was to find the quickest way to put the entire ordeal behind her.

But, the friend said, this is only the beginning for her.

Ms. Hutchinson has been lauded by Trump critics as a 21st-century John Dean and attacked by Mr. Trump as a “total phony.”Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

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