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Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Opinion For Cassidy Hutchinson, ‘I don’t remember’ wasn’t good enough

Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testifies before the House's Jan. 6 committee on June 28. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP) 

“Cassidy Hutchinson knew better than to put herself in debt to what she called “Trump world.” As she would later testify, “Once you are looped in, especially financially with them, there is no turning back.”

But Hutchinson, who witnessed the final days of the Trump White House from her all-access perch as an aide to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, had been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 select committee. The deadline for turning over documents was looming, and Hutchinson was, she said, “starting to freak out.” One lawyer she consulted said he could assist — then demanded a $150,000 retainer.

So, the young aide, out of work since Donald Trump had left office a full year earlier, initially decided to turn to Trump world for help. Which is how she came to receive a phone call from Stefan Passantino, previously a lawyer in the Trump White House counsel’s office.

On Dec. 19, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection wrapped proceedings and made criminal referrals for former president Donald Trump. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“We have you taken care of,” he told Hutchinson. When she asked who would be paying the bills, Passantino demurred — this despite legal ethics rules that let attorneys accept payment from third parties but only with the “informed consent” of their client.

“If you want to know at the end, we’ll let you know, but we’re not telling people where funding is coming from right now,” Hutchinson, in her deposition, recalled him saying. “Like, you’re never going to get a bill for this, so if that’s what you’re worried about.”

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If Hutchinson’s live testimony before the select committee was riveting, her deposition testimony, taken several months later and released Thursday, is a page-turner: The Godfather meets John Grisham meets "All the President’s Men." Before, we could only imagine how frightening the situation must have been for the 20-something Trump staffer. Now, we can read of her frantic search for help, and her terror as she contemplated telling the truth.

It is a tale, at least in Hutchinson’s telling, of Trump allies dangling financial support in exchange for unyielding loyalty. “We’re gonna get you a really good job in Trump world. You don’t need to apply other places,” Passantino assured Hutchinson. “We’re gonna get you taken care of. We’re going to keep you in the family.” The goal, as he set it out, was clear: “We just want to focus on protecting the President.”

It’s a story of meek compliance enforced by fear of consequences — and menacing admonitions to remain on board. “They will ruin my life, Mom, if I do anything they don’t want me to do,” Hutchinson told her mother when she offered congratulations about finally securing a lawyer.

The night before her second interview with the committee, an aide to Meadows called Hutchinson about her former boss: “Mark wants me to let you know that he knows you’re loyal and he knows you’ll do the right thing tomorrow and that you’re going to protect him and the boss. You know, he knows that we’re all on the same team and we’re all a family.”

Most vividly, it is a chilling account of questionable legal ethics practiced by Passantino who, in a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter, was the Trump White House’s chief ethics officer. Passantino is depicted repeatedly advising Hutchinson to fall back on an asserted failure to remember anything. “The less you remember, the better.”

Except Hutchinson did remember — and quite a lot. Such as the incident in the presidential limousine, as related to Hutchinson by deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato, in which an enraged Trump allegedly lunged at his lead Secret Service agent when he refused to take the president to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

When Hutchinson mentioned this episode to Passantino shortly before her first interview with the committee, “he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to talk about that.’” The committee, he said, “have no way of knowing that. … But just because he told you doesn’t mean that you need to share it with them.”

Deposition prep with Passantino seemed confined less to reviewing the facts than to instructing the witness in the art of declining to disclose them. “He was like, ‘Well, if you had just overheard conversations that happened, you don’t need to testify to that,'” Hutchinson said.

“Stefan never told me to lie,” she told the committee. “He specifically told me, ‘I don’t want you to perjure yourself, but "I don’t recall" isn’t perjury. They don’t know what you can and can’t recall.’” Hutchinson pressed him on this matter. “I said, ‘But, if I do recall something but not every little detail, Stefan, can I still say I don’t recall?' And he had said, ‘Yes.’”

A week later, appearing before the panel, Hutchinson found herself peppered with questions about the Trump limousine incident. She kept saying she hadn’t heard anything like that — and Passantino sat silently by as his client offered testimony he knew to be false.

“I just lied,” a rattled Hutchinson told Passantino during a break. “And he said, ‘They don’t know what you know, Cassidy. They don’t know that you can recall some of these things. So you saying "I don’t recall" is an entirely acceptable response to this.’”

No, no, no. Lawyers advise their clients not to volunteer information — that’s appropriate. They instruct them to give limited answers, confined to the precise scope of the question — that’s appropriate, too.

But lawyers — at least lawyers who want to keep their law license — do not provide the kind of counsel that Hutchinson describes. There is no “overheard” or “I don’t recall” loophole if, in fact, you did hear something and you do remember it. Ominously for Passantino, the deposition transcript reveals that Hutchinson provided the same information to the Justice Department.

Passantino, who has taken a leave of absence from his law firm to “deal with the distraction of this matter,” said in a statement that he represented Hutchinson“honorably, ethically, and fully consistent with her sole interests as she communicated them to me” and believed she “was being truthful and cooperative with the Committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her.”

In the end, Hutchinson decided she could not accept such advice and still look at herself in the mirror. So, she dumped Passantino and decided to spill what she knew to congressional investigators.

“To be blunt, I was kind of disgusted with myself,” Hutchinson said. “I became somebody I never thought that I would become.”

To read her deposition is to wonder: What do the others in the Trump crowd see when they look in the mirror?”

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