The January 6 committee made a startling allegation on Monday, claiming it had evidence that a Trump-backed attorney urged a key witness to mislead the committee about details they recalled.
Though the committee declined to identify the people, CNN has learned that Stefan Passantino, the top ethics attorney in the Trump White House, is the lawyer who allegedly advised his then-client, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, to tell the committee that she did not recall details that she did, sources familiar with the committee’s work tell CNN.
Trump’s Save America political action committee funded Passantino and his law firm Elections LLC, including paying for his representation of Hutchinson, other sources tell CNN. The committee report notes the lawyer did not tell his client who was paying for the legal services.
Over the summer, Hutchinson emerged as a blockbuster witness for the committee, providing key insight into Trump’s state of mind and his actions leading up to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Before her public testimony, Hutchinson dropped Passantino and got a new lawyer.
When asked about pressure on Hutchinson after Monday’s hearing, committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren, told CNN: “She was advised to say that she didn’t recall something when she did. So that’s pretty serious stuff.”
The episode is just one of several instances in which the committee has accused members of Trump’s orbit of trying to obstruct the panel’s investigation.
Two sources familiar with the situation tell CNN that Hutchinson has discussed the episode with the Justice Department. CNN has previously reported that Hutchinson was cooperating with the Justice Department’s January 6 investigation, after she became a crucial public witness in the House probe.
CNN reached out to the Justice Department for comment.
Passantino has not been accused of a crime. He said House investigators never reached out to him for an interview.
In a statement to CNN, Passantino said he didn’t advise Hutchinson to mislead the committee. “I represented Ms. Hutchinson honorably, ethically, and fully consistent with her sole interests as she communicated them to me. I believed Ms. Hutchinson was being truthful and cooperative with the Committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her.”
Passantino pointed out it’s not uncommon for people to change lawyers “because their interests or strategies change,” according to his statement. He also said political committees sometimes cover client fees “at the client’s request.”
In response to an accusation from the committee that he also shared her testimony with other lawyers and the press even when she told him not to, he said, “External communications made on Ms. Hutchinson’s behalf while I was her counsel were made with her express authorization.”
By Tuesday, Passantino’s professional biography had been removed from the website of a midwestern-based law firm where he was a partner – and he acknowledged in his statement he was on a leave of absence from the firm “given the distraction of this matter.” That firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, said on Tuesday it was not involved in the situation and Hutchinson wasn’t a client.
Passantino said he remains a partner at Elections LLC.
The committee summary stated that the panel “is aware of multiple efforts by President Trump to contact Select Committee witnesses. The Department of Justice is aware of at least one of those circumstances.”
Then on Monday, in the executive summary of the final report, the committee revisited the issue in its handoff of the investigation to the Justice Department.
According to the report, “the lawyer had advised the witness that the witness could, in certain circumstances, tell the Committee that she did not recall facts when she actually did recall them.”
“When the witness raised concerns with her lawyer about that approach,” according to the summary, the lawyer said, “They don’t know what you know, [witness]. 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.”
“The lawyer instructed the client about a particular issue that would cast a bad light on President Trump: ‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to talk about that,’” the report said.
At the committee’s final public hearing, Lofgren said: “The witness believed this was an effort to affect her testimony, and we are concerned that these efforts may have been a strategy to prevent the Committee from finding the truth.”
Lawyers must follow extensive ethics guidelines as part of their profession, including avoiding conflicts of interest that could compromise their representation of a client. According to legal ethics experts, a lawyer swaying their client’s testimony in a way that wouldn’t be entirely truthful could be looked at as possible obstruction of an investigation.
Elections LLC, a political law practice Passantino and other Trump lawyers founded after he left the Trump White House, has received regular payments from Save America PAC and other Trump-backed groups, according to FEC filings. The Save America PAC distributions to the firm for legal consulting total more than $150,000 in 2021, and about $275,000 in 2022. The firm also has worked for major Republican congressional campaigns.
This year, Trump’s Save America PAC has made payments to several law firms representing witnesses in the January 6 and Mar-a-Lago investigation. An issue only arises if the lawyer doesn’t follow the client’s wishes, legal experts and professional rules say.