Secret Service Deleted Text Messages Scandal and Related Criminal Investigation Explained

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The United States Secret Service is a lot like indoor plumbing: it’s something you only think about when something goes wrong. Although the federal law enforcement agency has a role to play in investigating financial crimes like counterfeiting, it is best known for its role in protecting members of the executive branch, like the president and vice president. -president and their families.

As such, they are often part of the background. It’s the people in dark suits and earflaps who are always very close to the president but ideally just out of frame. When they are in focus, it is a sign that something is wrong. And things have turned very bad for the Secret Service lately, as text messages sent by agents during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol appear to have been deleted.

Last week, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, under the supervision of the Secret Service, sent a letter to Congress advising them that text messages sent by agents on and before January 6 had been deleted. A Secret Service spokesperson claimed it was part of a long-planned ‘system migration’, but the wipes have now launched a criminal investigation after investigators could find only one relevant text message from two dozen agents subject to a congressional subpoena.

Further concerns were raised after the Washington Post reported that the DHS Inspector General was aware of the deleted posts since February but said nothing.

This sparked a joint statement Wednesday from Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Liz Cheney (R-WY), chair and vice-chair of the House Jan. 6 Committee:

We are concerned about a system migration that we are told has resulted in the erasure of Secret Service cell phone data. The process of migrating the US Secret Service system continued on January 27, 2021, just three weeks after the attack on the Capitol in which the Vice President of the United States, while under the protection of the secret service, was steps away from a violent mob looking for him. Four House committees had already requested these critical records from the Department of Homeland Security before the records were apparently lost. Additionally, the content preservation process prior to this purge appears to have violated federal record retention requirements and may represent a possible violation of the Federal Records Act.

Texting has become increasingly vital after the testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who recounted a startling scene where former President Donald Trump tried to take control of a Secret Service vehicle to join the crowd at the Capitol on January 6. Hutchinson told a story as told to him by Tony Ornato, a senior White House official on Secret Service details, and Bobby Engel, Trump’s head of security details.

As Hutchinson recounted in a public hearing in June, Trump became enraged when officers tried to take him back to the White House and not the Capitol. “I’m the fucking president, take me to the Capitol now,” Trump reportedly exclaimed before reaching behind the wheel of the Secret Service vehicle. He “then threw himself on [the] collarbone” of an officer trying to restrain him, Hutchinson said.

Immediately after his testimony, anonymous Secret Service agents told several news outlets that Ornato and Engel were prepared to deny it had happened, but neither testified about it under oath. During its Thursday hearing, the committee said other unnamed sources corroborated Hutchinson’s remarks.

Visibility of text messages between officers would confirm what happened and may further prove Trump’s intent to join the crowd on Capitol Hill in his efforts to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election. They could also offer more details about what Trump was doing during the attack. The committee established during Thursday’s hearing that Trump spent most of the time during the attack watching Fox News and pressuring senators to back his efforts to void the 2020 election.

Plus, they could clarify what was going on around Vice President Mike Pence that day. Thursday’s hearing displayed audio transcripts from Secret Service agents at the Capitol who feared Pence could not escape to a safe location on Capitol Hill, and an unnamed security official testified that members of the detail of Pence were so worried that they called family members to say goodbye in case they didn’t survive.

Afterwards, when Pence fled, he refused officers’ requests to get in a car because he didn’t trust them not to drive off and evacuate him from the Capitol. Pence, who believed it was important for the country to complete the task Congress had begun that day, did not want to prevent election certification if he could not return to the Capitol that evening, as Carol Leonnig and Philip of the Washington Post. Rucker reported in his book Only I can fix it. Under says Tim Giebels, the head of his retail, “I’m not getting in the car, Tim. I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in this vehicle, you leave. I don’t get in the car.

At the same time, Ornato told Keith Kellogg, Pence’s national security adviser, that there were plans to move the vice president to Andrews Air Force Base. Kellogg replied according to the Post, “You can’t do that, Tony. 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.

The missing text messages could also reveal more details about it, but it’s unclear if we’ll ever see them. Secret Service says it’s unlikely they can be recovered. However, we may learn more during the criminal investigation about who erased them and why.

In the meantime, committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) told reporters Thursday night that Ornato and Engel hired private attorneys.

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