Scene of the crime: Was there a conspiracy to keep Cassidy Hutchinson silent?

Hutchinson's lawyer was paid by "Trump World" — and dangled job offers before her for "doing the right thing"

Published January 3, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Donald Trump and Cassidy Hutchinson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Cassidy Hutchinson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The September transcripts of star witness Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony before the House Jan. 6 committee read like a script for a sequel to "Goodfellas," Martin Scorsese's legendary crime film.

In May 2022, Hutchinson, a former top aide to Mark Meadows, who was Donald Trump's final White House chief of staff, gave the committee some of its most incriminating testimony against Trump.

But that damning testimony came in Hutchinson's third interview with the committee, only after she did a complete course correction. In two earlier sessions with the committee, she had apparently adhered to the advice of her then-lawyer, Stefan Passantino, that she answer "I don't recall" to virtually every question the committee asked — advice that led her to deny recalling things she had in fact recalled.

Soon after her blockbuster interview in May, she replaced Passantino with new lawyers and gave the committee further interviews in September. It is those interviews that we focus on here.

For anyone not accustomed to reading 195-page court documents, the September transcripts reveal a pattern of conduct that points to what appears to have been a conspiracy to suppress the truth that this key witness ultimately revealed.

Here are some important facts to keep in mind:

Passantino was a former White House ethics lawyer under Trump. Shortly after the Jan. 6 committee's Dec. 22 release of Hutchinson's September testimony, Passantino resigned from his law firm. He has denied wrongdoing; his side of the story is yet to be told. 

What made Hutchinson's September testimony so devastating is the picture that emerges from six pieces of her story that, taken together, suggest a well-orchestrated effort to hide the truth from the House committee and thus the American people.

First: According to Hutchinson, it was months into Passantino's representation that he let slip that "Trump World" was the source of his compensation for serving as her attorney. Absent Hutchinson's informed consent, a palpable conflict of interest arises from Trump or his circle pulling the purse strings of the lawyer supposedly representing a key witness in a congressional investigation into Trump's role in disrupting the peaceful transition of power.

That conflict was brought into stark relief by Hutchinson's testimony that, in her very first conversation with Passantino, she had specifically asked him who was paying him. His reply: "[W]e're not telling people where funding is coming from right now."

Second: Hutchinson testified that Passantino made a revealing statement bearing on the early concern she had expressed about whom the person serving as "her" lawyer was actually representing. Later, according to Hutchinson, Passantino advised her: "We just want to focus on protecting the president."

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Third: Hutchinson described an especially telling exchange that took place at a crucial break in her first committee interview: According to Hutchinson, she told Passantino in a panic, "I'm fucked. I just lied." She explained that she had testified "I don't recall" regarding things she in fact recalled perfectly well. Passantino sought to reassure her, insisting that she was "doing the right thing," adding, "We're all really proud of you."

Fourth: Over what Hutchinson testifies was her objection, Passantino discussed her committee interviews with his "Trump World" law partners, including Justin Clark, who represented Trump himself. Passantino also said he would be alerting George Terwilliger and John S. Moran, lawyers for Mark Meadows, of the date of her second committee interview.

In short order, Hutchinson described receiving a phone call from Ben Williamson, Meadows' spokesperson, just before her second interview. According to Hutchinson, Williamson said, "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."

Fifth: Hutchinson said that after her third interview with the committee, Passantino recommended that she simply defy the committee's subpoena; he told her she needn't fear prosecution for such defiance, however unlawful. The Justice Department, he reminded her, had just announced that it was declining to prosecute Meadows and Dan Scavino, Trump's former social media director, for flouting the committee's subpoenas.

Her resistance to Trump World's pressure to stay silent distinguishes her from several Trump allies who defied subpoenas.

Six pieces of Cassidy Hutchinson's story, when put together, suggest a well-orchestrated effort to hide the truth from Congress and thus from the American people.

Under federal law, a person can face a 20-year sentence if convicted of witness tampering, the crime of "corruptly persuad[ing]" a witness "to withhold testimony ... from an official proceeding" or attempting to induce a witness to "evade legal process" with the intent to do so.

In addition, witness tampering to cover up responsibility for a prior crime subjects the tamperers to potential additional charges as accessories to the offenses they tried to help hide.   

Sixth: According to her September interviews, after Hutchinson told Passantino she was out of work, he and various other Trump allies had dangled a range of financial opportunities in front of her with the apparent purpose of luring her to testify favorably, if she testified at all.

Tellingly, the timing of those offers often coincided with Hutchinson's committee interviews.

Case in point: It was the morning before her first committee interview that Passantino told Hutchinson he wanted to talk to her soon about job possibilities. And it was shortly before her second committee interview that he told her, "[W]e'll find you something in Trump world. ... We're going to get you taken care of."

Hutchinson also described how, the day before that interview, Trump lawyer Justin Clark, Passantino's then-law partner, "sent [her] a text message ... to try to schedule a call [in which] we could talk about job opportunities."

Hutchinson said that between her second and third interviews, she received a text from yet another Trump lawyer, Pam Bondi, telling Hutchinson to "call Matt next week. He has a job for you." The reference was apparently to Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. Hutchinson quoted Bondi's text as saying that she'd "just had dinner with POTUS" and Schlapp that night.

As if that hadn't been enough, Hutchinson testified that on the morning of her third interview, Passantino told her about two job opportunities he said he would follow up on after that interview.

The upshot of these and other such incidents to which Hutchinson testified in September is the unmistakable appearance of coordinated and carefully timed actions by multiple people meant to keep Hutchinson from speaking honestly to the committee — what the law refers to, when proven, as a conspiracy.

Hutchinson's testimony should be wrapped in the yellow police tape used to protect crime scenes. Without doubt, a prosecutor's scrutiny is needed. No one is above the law.

By Laurence H. Tribe

Laurence H. Tribe is Carl M. Loeb University Professor and professor of constitutional law emeritus at Harvard Law School.

MORE FROM Laurence H. Tribe

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Cassidy Hutchinson Donald Trump Jan. 6 Committee Mark Meadows Stefan Passantino Trump World