The last month has seen waves of revelations about an unfolding scandal related to text messages in the final days of the Trump administration: It’s recently been revealed that both high-ranking administration officials and Secret Service agents erased almost all text messages sent and received on and around January 6th, 2021.
In the days after the attack on the Capitol complex, congressional committees and watchdog groups requested any messages sent and received that fateful day. It’s emerged only now, more than a year later, that the texts were lost — and that, in fact, they’d been erased soon after the insurrection.
So, why does it matter? And what is there still to learn? Below are five points about the blossoming missing texts scandal — and what’s left to discover.
Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony in June raised questions that would help bring the deleted texts scandal into the open.
On June 28, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified before the Jan. 6 Committee that she had heard Trump had a run-in with the Secret Service during the attack.
According to Hutchinson, the story had been relayed by then-deputy White House chief of staff for operations Tony Ornato and another Secret Service agent: Trump, she heard, had climbed into the presidential limo assuming that he was being taken to the Capitol.
When his security detail told him the they had to take him back to the White House, Trump said something along the lines “I’m the fucking president, take me up to the Capitol now,” before reaching for the steering wheel, Hutchinson testified, relating what she said she had heard. Robert Engel, the Secret Service agent in charge of Trump’s personal security detail, grabbed Trump’s arm and told him that they’d be going back to the West Wing, but Trump lunged at him, according to her testimony.
The shocking testimony, some of the most dramatic to emerge from the Jan. 6 hearings, set off a scramble to find more info about the Secret Service’s activities that day.
The agencies claim the texts were deleted as part of normal protocol.
That’s when we learned that the text messages between at least 24 Secret Service employees had been erased at the end of Trump’s term.
When DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari asked the agency for written correspondence from the time of the insurrection, the Secret Service admitted that the texts had been lost in a system migration process that took place soon after Biden was inaugurated, on January 27, 2021.
According to the Secret Service, though Cuffari requested records for an entire month from 24 agents, only one text exchange remained.
The Secret Service had “began to reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a July 14, 2022, statement. “In that process, data resident on some phones was lost.”
The statement also claimed, however, that “none of the texts” that DHS’s Office of Inspector General was seeking “had been lost in the migration.”
Four House committee chairs had already requested records from the Secret Service a few days after the attack, and, as Cuffari’s and the Secret Service’s statements prompted fresh questions, committee chairs fired off new inquiries.
The Jan. 6 Committee and Democrats allege a cover-up.
Members of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 expressed suspicion about the timing of when the Secret Service erased the texts — without backing them up.
“The U.S. Secret Service system migration process went forward 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 from a violent mob hunting for him,” the committee said in a July 20 statement.
They also began to focus increasingly on Inspector General Cuffari, who stayed quiet for months after learning that the Secret Service had deleted the texts.
“According to recent reports, your office learned that the Secret Service was missing critical text messages as part of your investigation of the January 6 attack against the U.S. Capitol in May 2021 — seven months earlier than you previously revealed,” they wrote in an August 1 letter.
Cuffari hadn’t alerted Congress about the missing texts until July 13, 2022, after testimony before the Jan. 6 Committee, including Hutchinson’s, had forced the issue.
A key figure has multiple investigations against him.
On July 28, the Washington Post revealed that Cuffari had also stayed mum about the fact that text messages between former DHS chief Chad Wolf and former acting DHS deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli were lost.
He’d been notified by the DHS’s management division in February 2022 and considered publishing a six-page alert about the issue, but ultimately decided against it.
This isn’t Cuffari’s first time around a scandal: An investigation from the Project on Government Oversight alleged that the federal watchdog suppressed complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct from over 10,000 DHS employees. The complaints came via a survey conducted within the agency.
He was also the subject of an investigation looking into his time in the Justice Department’s Arizona field office: A 2013 report acquired by the Washington Post revealed that Cuffari was investigated for failing to inform his supervisors about his testimony in a federal prisoner’s lawsuit, as well as referring his friends’ law firms to the prisoner’s family — all of which, a DOJ IG review found, ran afoul of federal ethics rules.
Cuffari is currently being investigated by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency for whether he had authorized an investigation by law firm WilmerHale “in ‘retaliation’ for unspecified protected activity of unspecified persons,” he wrote in a June 4, 2021 letter to Congress first published by the Project on Government Oversight. Cuffari denied involvement.
It’s not over yet.
There may still be more records on the horizon.
According to ABC, the Secret Service gave the Jan. 6 Committee a list of agency-issued phone numbers from agents who were working during the period they’re investigating.
That, ABC reports, can help the committee decide which agents’ call records are of interest, and potentially issue subpoenas to their cell phone providers.
DHS will also review its electronic retention policies, and they’ve put a pause on wiping agents’ phone records until it’s complete.