Trump-appointed Secret Service watchdog knew about deleted texts — but didn’t tell Congress: report

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, a former Republican advisor, previously quashed Secret Service probes

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor
Published July 21, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)
Updated December 2, 2022 1:12PM (EST)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally hosted by the former president at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally hosted by the former president at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that protesters were cleared from Lafayette Park for Trump's photo-op. However, a June 2021 inspector general report found the "evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church."

The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General learned that the Secret Service deleted nearly all texts from Jan. 6 but did not inform Congress, according to The Washington Post.

Two whistleblowers who worked with Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump after serving as an advisor to Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and former Gov. Jan Brewer, revealed the months-long delay in reporting a purge of Secret Service texts that has come under scrutiny by the Jan. 6 committee, according to the report.

One whistleblower reported the decision by Cuffari's office not to disclose the purge to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog group, which then relayed the information to congressional staff. Staffers then corroborated the account with a second whistleblower, according to the Post.

Cuffari's office in October 2021 had also prepared a public alert sounding the alarm that the Secret Service and other divisions of DHS were stonewalling it on requests for records and texts around the time of the Capitol riot but never issued it, sources told the outlet.

Congressional staffers and the two whistleblowers raised concerns that Cuffari's decision hampered investigators' ability to recover key evidence related to the Capitol riot, including texts of Secret Service agents that planned Trump's movements on Jan. 6 and protected him as he plotted to overturn his election loss.

"It's a dereliction of duty to keep the public and Congress in the dark for months," POGO senior investigator Nick Schwellenbach told the Post. "Digital forensics experts could have been working to recover these lost texts a long time ago."

Cuffari has been at the center of Trump-era controversies before. He rejected his staff's recommendation to investigate the Secret Service's involvement in the June 1, 2020, incident, when federal law enforcement used tear gas to forcibly clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House before Trump help a photo-op holding up a Bible in front of a church that had been damaged by fire during an earlier protest. Cuffari also sought to limit and ultimately scrapped an investigation into whether the Secret Service flouted COVID protocols despite recommendations from his staff. His office did not launch a single probe specifically investigating the Secret Service at any point during Trump's tenure.

"It doesn't look like he's an independent watchdog," Schwellenbach told the Post at the time.

Cuffari has also come under scrutiny by lawmakers after he and his deputies ordered staff to remove reports of sexual assault, harassment and domestic abuse by DHS agents and large payouts to survivors, according to documents obtained by POGO.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, also raised concerns that Cuffari's office covered up the deaths of two migrant children in Border Patrol custody.

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Cuffari's office did not directly address the latest allegations but said in an email to the Post that he "disclosed concerns" in semiannual reports to Congress in September and March that DHS and Secret Service were delaying his investigation of the attack. The reports did not mention text messages, according to the Post.

POGO called on President Joe Biden to fire Cuffari over the delay. The group previously urged Biden to fire Cuffari in April 2021, arguing that he has shown a "chilling lack of independence" and has tried to retaliate against whistleblowers while quashing investigations.

Thompson, who also heads the Jan. 6 Committee, and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., issued a joint statement on Wednesday raising concerns that a Secret Service phone system update resulted in the "erasure" of records, a possible violation of federal law, and warned the agency that "every effort must be made to retrieve the lost data."

"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 statement said.

"Four House committees had already sought these critical records from the Department of Homeland Security before the records were apparently lost," the lawmakers continued. "Additionally, the procedure for preserving content prior to this purge appears to have been contrary to federal records retention requirements and may represent a possible violation of the Federal Records Act."

The Secret Service has come under increased scrutiny after the testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified that Trump lunged at a Secret Service agent and attempted to hijack his vehicle after being told that he could not go to the Capitol with his supporters. After her testimony, Secret Service official Tony Ornato, who was tapped by Trump to serve as a deputy chief of staff, denied her account. Bobby Engel, the head of Trump's security detail, also denied that there was a physical confrontation.

The Secret Service said it turned over 10,569 pages of documents to the committee on Tuesday in response to a subpoena it issued last week. The agency acknowledged that Cuffari sought texts from two dozen Secret Service employees from around the time of the Capitol riot on June 11, 2021. Agency officials said they found just one text message — a request for assistance from the Capitol Police to the Secret Service.

Secret Service Assistant Director Ronald Rowe Jr. said in a letter to the committee that Cuffari's office asked for the texts last June and that the agency is not "currently aware" of any lost texts. He said that officials are making "extensive efforts" to determine if messages were lost and "if so, whether such texts are recoverable." Officials are pulling "any available metadata" and conducting "forensic examinations of any possible devices" to see if the texts were stored somewhere, he said.

The Secret Service said its employees are trained to comply with the Federal Records Act. The agency said it began planning to replace agents' phones in the fall of 2020 and issued instructions for employees to preserve content ahead of a data migration on Jan. 27. Individual agents were allowed to determine which texts to preserve and which to delete.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who has testified to Congress about record-keeping requirements and has repeatedly defended Trump's administration, told the Post that the agency had a "duty" to protect the data for possible investigations and for historical purposes.

Even an accidental purge "should still be treated as a serious matter," he told the outlet. "These records are the story of the nation. That's the point of the Federal Records Act."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Capitol Riot Donald Trump January 6 Joseph Cuffari Politics Secret Service