America: A Jump Ball

As the nation braces for tonight’s  ‘prime-time’ Jan. 6 hearings it’s an opportune time to reflect on the central role New Jersey natives are playing in how events unfolded on that day that our democracy had a near death experience.

By tracing how their personal stories continue to  intertwine we get a sense of the reality that the fate of our fragile republic is still very much up in the air— a jump ball.

In short, the insurrection is ongoing.

Earlier this month, former President Trump called the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly to ask his to de-certify that state’s 2020 Presidential election results. The former president still enjoys around the clock protection provided by the government he tried to overthrow and it appears, just as he did when he was in Atlantic City, he has co opted elements of law enforcement who are drawn into supplication by his strong man image.

It was on the watch of the current U.S. Secret Service Director Charles M. Murray, a native of Point Pleasant and Trump appointee,  that the law enforcement agency purged all of its text messages, save one, from Jan. 5 & 6, in violation of the Federal Records Act and after Congress requested them.

PROBLEM? WHAT PROBLEM?

Murray, the son of a New Jersey State Trooper, was selected by Trump in 2019 to lead the $3 billion agency that has 7,000 special agents, uniformed officers and technical staff with 115 offices in the U.S. and 19 overseas. He joined the agency in 1995 and by 2007 he was the Secret Service’s liaison with Congress.

“Following his time on Capitol Hill, Mr. Murray became the Resident Agent in Charge of the Secret Service’s Atlantic City Resident Office in 2009,” his Secret Service bio says. “In this capacity, he supported regional protective missions and partnered with federal, state and local law enforcement, academia and private industry partners to proactively address and mitigate emerging cyber enabled financial threats.

According to reporting by the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, Murray was appointed by President Trump at the suggestion of Tony Ornato, then the head of Trump’s security detail would be elevated to being Trump’s White House deputy chief of staff, something that was “unprecedented for the non-partisan Secret Service.”

“By installing Ornato in a temporary political position in the White House it made the president’s political goals the central mission for a Secret Service employee,” writes Leonning. “And while Ornato and Murray were close, the arrangement meant Ornato effectively outranked the director.”

THY WILL BE DONE

In his kind of dual role, Leonnig says it was Ornato who helped choreograph the use of the Park Police, mounted units, flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets to forcibly clear peaceful protestors on June 1st from Lafayette Square Park so that President Trump could strike his strongman pose holding up a Bible in front of a church as the 2020 campaign heated up.

Similarly, it was Ornato who signed off on the aggressive barnstorming amidst the worst of the pandemic, even as several hundred Secret Service agents were infected as Trump insisted on ’spreader events’ in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“Ornato had been the key organizer of the president’s campaign rallies out of town, putting the president’s  wishes ahead of the security of the people who protected him,” writes Leonnig.

But sadly the impact rippled well beyond that the health of the Secret Service agents and their families.

According to researchers at Stanford University just 18 Trump rallies between June 20 and Sept. 22 produced 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID and likely led to 700 additional deaths from the virus.

Paul C. Light  is the NYU Wagner’s Paulette Godard Professor of Public Service and one of the nation’s leading experts on the federal civil service. He said that while Ornato’s straddling of the non-partisan civil service and political roles “may not have been illegal…it was probably very confusing for those who reported to him and those he was supposed to report to….It’s got to be in the Hall of Fame for potential conflicts of interests.”

CRIMINAL INTENT OR JUST INEPT?

No doubt, the loss of this real time information in the form of the texts, which the Secret Service was under a heavy legal obligation to preserve, makes it harder for House investigators and the department of Justice to nail down the tick tock of just what the U.S. Secret Service knew and when about Trump’s plans for Jan. 6.

On Jan. 6, the organization was under an unprecedented strain as its executive protection units were tasked with protecting both Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence, even as the sitting president appeared to be provoking the crowd’s ire against his second in command.

Initially, after the Inspector General for the Secret Service informed Congress about the agency’s failure to retain the texts the agency put out a press statement saying “the insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages” following a request was “ false.”

Yet, in a letter to the House Select Committee the agency explained it had purged  the trove of real time messaging as part of a pre-planned “device replacement program.” The National Archives is now demanding that the Secret Service probe  “the potential unauthorized deletion” of the critical texts and report back their findings in 30 days.

Ornato was not a one man Trump cheering section.

On social media, the Washington Post recounts, Secret Service agents openly expressed their preference for Trump and in some cases their sympathies for the rioters and even promoted Tump’s debunked stolen election scenarios.

In 2017, the Secret Service paid $24 million to resolves a long pending racial discrimination  case brought by more than 100 Black agents who charged the agency with promoting a racist work environment and systematically bypassing qualified candidate of color for their less qualified white colleagues. Of course, the agency did not admit to doing anything wrong.

Throughout the lengthy litigation, federal judges blasted the agency for withholding documents and even going to the lengths of destroying evidence helpful to the plaintiffs case.

In her book Zero Fail The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service” Leonnig describes how “some in the service were so overwhelmingly pro-Trump that supervisors had raised no complaint when agents openly joked about bleeding-heart liberals and displayed “Make America Great Again” hats on their desk, a seemingly clear violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits supporting candidates in the workplace” adding that the agency’s Black employees “felt angry that the flexibility on political speech seemed to flow only one way.”

HIDE THE BALL

Most alarming however was the decision at the very top of the agency led by New Jersey’s Murray to internalize the Trump junta script and not grant then President-elect Joe Biden the customary protection even after there was no doubt he had won the election.

Leonnig notes that days after the election, “still the Secret Service leadership declined to authorize the full protection that had always been provided to president-elect, a level of security approaching that of the president’s own.” As a consequence, Biden was denied access to a specially equipped armored car, a 24-7 counter assault team and beefed up staffing.

Questions about the Secret Service’s conduct on Jan. 6 came about after the riveting testimony of twenty-something Cassidy Hutchinson, the top aide to Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. It was Hutchinson that offered first hand accounts of Trump’s last ditch efforts to incite the mob he had summoned to derail the electoral ballot count. The Pennington native described how White House Counsel Pat Cipolione predicted for her that if Trump led his angry mob to the Capitol “we’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that move.”

It was Hutchinson who recounted how she was told by Ornato that Trump, after his incendiary Jan. 6 speech, had attempted to grab the steering wheel of his vehicle assaulting the head of his detail in the process who had angered the former president because he insisted on returning Trump to the White House.

In anonymous comments to the news media, U.S. Secret Service sources attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of Hutchinson’s account of what she was told went on in the motorcade. Subsequently, a Washington D.C. police officer, who was in the motorcade  confirmed the account Hutchinson relayed to the House panel about Trump lashing out.

THE LAST FULL  MEASURE

On Jan. 6, At the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. was  U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, himself a Trump supporter. That day he would be engaged in mortal hand to hand combat trying to shield the Congress from Trump’s rioters who wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence and for the first time in America’s history derail the peaceful transition of power.

Sicknick, 42, raised in South River, was one of three responding police officers defending the Capitol when they were allegedly sprayed with highly toxic bear spray by two Trump rioters who had grown up together in New Jersey. Sicknick, an Iraqi era veteran, collapsed several hours after the spraying incident and was hospitalized. He died the next day.

While initial reports indicated Sicknick had been hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, the medical examiner reported that he died of “natural causes” after suffering two strokes. In an interview with the Washington Post, Dr. Francisco Diaz confirmed that Sicknick had been sprayed with a chemical irritant but had not suffered an allergic reaction, nor was there “evidence of internal or external injuries.” But “all that transpired played a role in his condition,” Diaz said.

On Jan. 6, in addition to Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was shot by Capitol Police as rioters were storming a House chamber, three other civilians died on the scene.

In the days after the assault, four police officers committed suicide. Close to 150 officers from the responding police agencies were injured with several permanently disabled.

QUID PRO QUO

Ornato was promoted to Assistant Director of the Office of Training within the U.S. Secret Service. He is responsible for the “oversight, administration, policies, and forecasting of required training and professional development for all Secret Service personnel,” according to the agency.

Murray leaves office by the end of the month and starts with Snapchat as their Chief Security Officer.

It should be a good fit. The snapchat app automatically deletes the messages you send after they are viewed.

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