How Trump World pressures witnesses to toe the line

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman.
Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, gets set to testify before the House Jan. 6 committee in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2022.

As rumors flew in the spring of 2018 that Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen was preparing to flip on his former boss and offer potentially damaging testimony to federal prosecutors, Cohen received an email.

“You are ‘loved,’ ” read the email, which indicated it was relaying comments from former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and was quoted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report. “Sleep well tonight . . . you have friends in high places.”

It was one of a number of times messages of cajoling support or bullying encouragement were delivered to potentially important Mueller witnesses.

And it was strikingly similar to the communications Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said on Tuesday had been received by witnesses who have testified for the House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Evidence across multiple state, federal and congressional investigations points to a similar pattern: Trump and his close allies privately shower potential witnesses with flattery and attention, extending vague assurances that staying loyal to Trump would be better than crossing him.

Meanwhile, Trump publicly blasts – in bluntly personal terms- those who offer testimony against him, delivering a clear example to others of the consequences of stepping out of line.

“Donald Trump never changes his playbook,” Cohen said in an interview. “He behaves like a mob boss, and these messages are fashioned in that style. Giving an order without giving the order. No fingerprints attached.”

A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Cheney recounted that committee members have asked all witnesses connected to Trump’s administration or campaign whether they have been contacted by former colleagues or others who have “attempted to influence or impact their testimony.”

She described two responses that she said raised “significant concern.”

One witness, Cheney said, told the committee about receiving phone calls indicating that Trump reads transcripts and “to keep that in mind” during interviews with the committee.

“What they said to me is, as long as I continue to be a team player, they know I’m on the right team. I’m doing the right thing. I’m protecting who I need to protect. You know, I’ll continue to stay in good graces in Trump World,” Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, said the witness testified.

Cheney described a call received by a second witness. “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,” she said, quoting the witness.

Cheney did not identify the witnesses who had been contacted. But a person familiar with the committee’s work said one of them was Cassidy Hutchinson, the 25-year-old former aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows. Her explosive testimony Tuesday that Trump knew rioters were armed when he urged them to march on the Capitol has become a signature moment in the committee’s investigation.

Cheney also did not explain who sent the messages, making it difficult to assess whether they were people especially close to Trump or fringe players unlikely to be acting on his orders. She also did not indicate whether the committee has access to text messages or emails that might provide written corroboration.

But she said that she thought “most Americans know that attempting to influence witnesses to testify untruthfully presents very serious concerns” and that the committee would be carefully considering how to respond.

The messages received by House committee witnesses would be illegal if they were designed to influence their testimony, said Timothy Belevetz, a former federal prosecutor and a defense attorney at Ice Miller who said federal laws cover attempts to tamper with congressional testimony. It is illegal to threaten a witness if they do not testify in a certain way – but also to promise to reward them if they do so.

“You have to draw conclusions with respect to their intent – are they making these statements with the intent to influence the witness?” he said. Regardless, he said, “it’s exceedingly troublesome.”

Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu.
Michael Cohen, longtime lawyer for Donald Trump, leaves a hearing room at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., after testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed session on Feb. 28, 2019.

It was allegations of interference with congressional testimony that got former Trump adviser Roger Stone charged with witness tampering in 2019. Prosecutors said Stone repeatedly urged radio host Randy Credico not to testify to Congress or to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in the Russia investigation. At one point, they alleged that Stone threatened Credico’s dog. Stone was convicted of the charge as well as of lying to Congress but was pardoned by Trump on Dec. 23, 2020 – not long before the Capitol riot.

According to Mueller, Cohen refused for a time to stray from Trump’s orbit in part because he thought his legal fees were being covered by the Trump Organization.

Likewise, until about a month before she testified, Hutchinson was represented by Stefan Passantino, a longtime Trump White House lawyer, and was not expected to pay for his services, people familiar with the matter said.

Records show that Passantino has received payments from Trump-related groups, including Trump’s political action committee, since he left office. Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally, has also helped orchestrate a defense fund for Trump advisers called the First Amendment Fund.

Hutchinson cut ties to Passantino after he suggested that she not testify publicly following the conclusion of 20 hours of closed depositions, a person who spoke to her said. The person, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Passantino represents multiple witnesses, including others who are cooperating with the committee. He declined to comment.

Hutchinson is now represented by Jody Hunt, a former official at the Justice Department under Trump.

Hunt did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Trump has also kept former aides tightly in his orbit through promises of employment and contributions to their political causes. Though he has been loath to spend money from his PAC, sometimes resisting aides’ suggestions for even small outlays, last year his Save America PAC sent $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit group where Meadows is a senior partner.

The donation came about one month after the House committee was formed. While Trump advisers insisted there was no quid pro quo involved with the donation, Trump has been inclined to keep Meadows in the fold, even when he is annoyed with him at times, people familiar with the matter said.

Other figures who were in key roles in the White House on Jan. 6 have been employed by Trump’s PAC, including Molly Michael, his scheduler and top assistant; Stephen Miller, his speechwriter and adviser; and Dan Scavino, his social media aide.

He has hosted Peter Navarro at Mar-a-Lago and has stayed in touch with Stephen Bannon. Navarro and Bannon have both refused to testify and have been charged with contempt of Congress.

“When you speak out against Trump, a whole army of MAGA comes after you,” said Alyssa Farah, a former White House official and friend of Hutchinson who resigned after the November 2020 election and has been critical of Trump since. “They try to indict your character, professionalism – nothing is off the limits.”

Farah said that Hutchinson “knew going into her testimony the unfair smears she would face, that have kept many people much older than her from testifying. But she still came forward for her country.”

Farah, according to a person familiar with the matter, suggested alternative lawyers to Hutchinson before she switched attorneys and aggressively encouraged her to publicly appear.

But perhaps Trump’s most effective tool in keeping potential witnesses loyal is the power of his own megaphone. Over and over again, Trump has lavished praise on aides who have refused to speak out against him – while repeatedly leveling deeply personal insults at those who have agreed.

As Hutchinson testified Tuesday, Trump issued increasingly frantic attacks against her on the social media platform Truth Social. He stepped up the barrage during a scathing interview with Newsmax that aired Thursday in which he called her “totally discredited,” a “whackjob” and a “social climber” with “serious mental problems.”

“Is there something wrong with her?” he asked. “The woman is living in fantasy land.”

In the same interview, Trump praised his former deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato and Secret Service agent Bobby Engel. They reportedly are willing to testify that Trump did not grab for the steering wheel of his SUV or lunge for Engel after being told after he delivered a speech on the Ellipse on Jan. 6 that he could not be safely taken to the Capitol and would instead be returned to the White House. Hutchinson testified that Ornato had told her at the White House that day about an altercation in the vehicle.

“These are great people, and I think they were very embarrassed by it because it makes them sound terrible,” Trump said. “It was very nice that they came to my defense.”

Cohen said Trump’s rhetoric – the then-president called him a “rat” and a “very weak person” – carries extraordinary weight with his supporters. Once Trump pounces, they follow suit.

“There is no way to adequately describe in words the feeling that overcomes your entire being when the president of the United States places you in his crosshairs,” Cohen said.

Committee members had so much fear for Hutchinson’s safety that the hearing room was swept for bombs before she testified Tuesday, a staffer said, and she had a security detail.

In Cohen’s case, his rupture with Trump came only after months of entreaties from his former boss and his allies.

After Cohen’s home and office were raided by the FBI in April 2018, he told investigators he got a call from one Trump ally who related that he was with “the boss” at Mar-a-Lago and that Trump “loves you.” He said another person associated with Trump’s company told him “the boss loves you” and a third, a friend of the president, said that “everyone knows the boss has your back.”

When former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was considering pleading guilty and cooperating with Mueller the previous year, his lawyer received a voice mail from a Trump attorney asking that he “remember what we’ve always said about the president and his feelings toward Flynn and that still remains.”

Ultimately, Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of crimes, including a campaign finance violation for paying $130,000 in hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, a payment he said he made at Trump’s direction.

He cooperated with prosecutors, testified publicly before Congress (predicting in 2019 that if Trump lost reelection, there would “never be a peaceful transition of power”) and spent just over a year in prison. Flynn initially agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador – but then sought to withdraw his plea and adopted Trump’s line that the investigation had been unfair.

Before leaving office, Trump issued a pardon to Flynn. He offered no pardon to Cohen.