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Cassidy Hutchinson is evidence of the power Washington’s aides can have

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Washington is run by aides, or at least it runs on the work of aides: the gophers, the schedulers, the advisers, the consiglieres, the speechwriters, the deputy assistant whatevers, the advance teams, the surrogates and spokespeople, the bag men and body men and boss whisperers, the young women who arrange everything and get credit for nothing. The aide is just out of frame, or blurry in the background, or seated against the wall of the conference room. Head down, taking notes, sending texts. Crafting a plan, a response, a lunch order. The aide’s responsibilities can be vast or pinpoint, consequential or quotidian. But even at a lower rank, even with modest experience, an aide has a source of formidable power: proximity. The aide sees and hears and knows, because they are, simply, around.

“Principal aide” was how Cassidy Hutchinson, 25, was described by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) Tuesday during the sixth hearing of the Jan. 6 select committee. Cheney used her opening remarks to situate Hutchinson at the nexus of power, calling her “a familiar face on Capitol Hill” whose desk was “several steps down the hall from the Oval Office.”

“Ms. Hutchinson,” Cheney said, “was in a position to know a great deal about the happenings in the Trump White House.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, while working for White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Hutchinson was surrounded by unfolding drama as the West Wing reacted to the insurrection. She was just around the corner from — or in earshot of, or behind the scenes with — the major players. Under oath she testified that she heard Meadows say that President Donald Trump condoned the mob’s vitriol toward Vice President Mike Pence. She said that a deputy chief of staff told her that the president had been informed before his speech that some rallygoers were armed. She said she heard and then witnessed the aftermath of a presidential tantrum that involved broken plateware.

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The subtle stagecraft behind the Jan. 6 hearings

Trump called her sworn testimony “fake” and “sick.”

“In my judgment, Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony today would not withstand a basic cross-examination,” said Meadows’s lawyer, George Terwilliger, on Tuesday.

A LinkedIn profile that appears to be Hutchinson’s describes her job then as “executive assistant” to Meadows, which makes her sound like a glorified secretary, and also “special assistant to the president for legislative affairs” in the “office of the chief of staff,” which sounds so officious that “aide” is a better term, though also inadequate.

But the point is: Whoever has access to the chief of staff has access to the president and anyone in his orbit.

“When I worked in the White House, I was always told: ‘If you really want to know what’s going on, talk to the assistant,’” says Eli Attie, who was a speechwriter for Al Gore and then a writer and producer for “The West Wing.” “They’re the ones listening to all the calls, talking to other assistants. They know who’s delisted from various meetings. They know the private rantings of their bosses. They hear the stompings of the president. In a town and culture where proximity is power, the aides have the proximity.”

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Hutchinson’s desk was located outside Meadows’s door in the West Wing, in a small reception area mere seconds from the Oval Office. “Mostly I was there to serve what the chief of staff needed,” she told the committee, while describing her typical day as “varied,” which was both true and an understatement.

Jennifer Palmieri watched the first hour and a half of the hearing from her home in New Jersey. She saw and heard a version of her younger self. Palmieri had Hutchinson’s job — and was near her age — when Leon Panetta was Bill Clinton’s second chief of staff in the mid-’90s. The job may be lower-ranking and thankless, but aides to the chief of staff have an intimate grasp of what’s going on in the West Wing, Palmieri says. Higher-ranking staffers vent or confide in them, or make telling demands of them, because they can’t do so to their own bosses.

When Panetta left the White House in 1997, Palmieri recalls a Clinton policy adviser asking her this: “What are you going to do now, after running the federal government for two and a half years? Because that’s what you’ve been doing.”

“That corner of the West Wing, with the chief and the chief’s aides and the deputies: It really does run things,” says Palmieri, who went on to head communications for the Obama White House and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I do think people would be shocked at the proximity of all these things. You’d definitely hear plates smashing against the dining room of the Oval Office.”

Aide — from the 17th-century French military term “aide-de-camp” — is a squishy label. In Washington it can mean anyone who serves a higher-up, in any capacity. Aides are the ones who get chewed out by U.S. senators for forgetting to procure utensils for the boss’s salad. Aides are the ones who had to scour McAllen, Tex., in 1988 for Clamato juice, because someone overheard the wife of vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen remarking about how she liked the beverage. Aides are the ones who, in 1994, had to figure out how to proceed with a planned event in the yard of the White House after a pilot with cocaine and alcohol in his system crashed a Cessna into the South Lawn and died.

But how can “aide” possibly capture the role that Hutchinson appears to have had? The hearing conveyed that she knew of pardon requests and security protocol; she worked on policy issues and scheduling; she was a conduit from Congress to the White House, the White House to the Cabinet and from one West Wing staffer to another; she flew on Air Force One and walked the colonnade by the Rose Garden with various elected officials. She testified that at least four of Trump’s close advisers each expressed revealing thoughts about Jan. 6 directly to her. She testified that White House counsel Pat Cipollone asked her to ensure that Trump did not go to the Capitol on Jan. 6. She testified that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called her directly during Trump’s speech on the Ellipse while Hutchinson was in a backstage tent with members of the Trump family. (Cipollone and McCarthy could not be reached for comment. A day before the hearing, McCarthy’s Twitter account retweeted a fellow House member who referred to the committee’s work as a “sham.”)

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In her recollections, Hutchinson seemed to cast herself as the voice of reason, nudging her boss to do his job at a moment of crisis.

“You watching the TV, chief?” she recalled saying to Meadows, in his office, as the mob closed in on the Capitol.

“Have you talked to the president?” she said she asked him.

“You might want to check in with him, Mark,” she recalled saying of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

During Tuesday’s hearing, alumni of the Obama White House traded knowing texts when the committee showed the location of Hutchinson’s desk in the West Wing, according to Sean Sweeney, a former aide to Rahm Emanuel when he was Barack Obama’s first chief of staff.

The Jan. 6 hearings and the spectacle of confidence

“They can try to dismiss her as a low-level person or a young person, but that’s not how it works,” Sweeney says. “If that’s where she sat and that’s the job she had, then she certainly knows what went on.”

“She was definitely very omnipresent,” recalls a former fellow aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about workplace dynamics. “I truly don’t know if I could come up with an accurate title” for her. “It really is hard to define just because it encompassed a lot.”

In 1973, Alexander Butterfield — an assistant to Richard M. Nixon’s first chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman — told the Senate Watergate Committee about the president’s audiotapes. Multiple former White House aides interviewed for this article name-checked Butterfield as an analog to Hutchinson.

Nixon “wanted Haldeman to be more a thinker, to be the follow-through guy on things that were important to the president that needed to get done,” Butterfield told the director of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library Museum in 2008. “And there was a lot of minutiae to the other stuff, administrative minutiae, and I took that on. I had about 28 separate jobs …”

Hutchinson had many, too, it seems. Her workload in the final weeks of the Trump presidency, she implied from her testimony, ranged from receiving officials’ objections to the commander in chief’s urges to wiping lunch debris off the wall of the Oval Office dining room after Trump allegedly threw a tantrum.

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“Her cleaning the ketchup off the wall? That could not be more Amy Brookheimer in our world,” says David Mandel, a showrunner for the HBO satire “Veep,” referencing a capable but subservient character. “I don’t want to be too flippant about it, but this is why we stopped doing the show. It just got to the point where, what’s the point of making up the story when this is reality?”

In the Clinton White House, Bill Burton’s title was “deputy assistant to the president,” but that told you nothing about his job as a right-hand man for Clinton’s first chief of staff, Mack McLarty. Burton sat right outside McLarty’s office, in the same small area as Hutchinson would nearly 30 years later.

“Everyone called her a top aide to Meadows, and I wondered what that meant,” he says. “Was she [Meadows’] chief of staff? His executive assistant? Was she a policy person? And then as the hearing went on and I found out more and more, I realized she is essentially his chief of staff.”

Sometimes aides — because of luck, timing and proximity — make or witness history. In 1988, as a 23-year-old campaign aide, Matt Bennett helped to stage the infamous photo op of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis riding in a tank. Later, when Clinton was in office, Bennett was in a holding room near a NATO meeting in Brussels when Clinton and his national security adviser stepped in to privately discuss the deal they were cutting to remove nuclear weapons from Ukrainian territory.

Margaret Sullivan: The Jan. 6 hearing was horrifying. It also gave me hope.

“So you’re a fly on the wall for a lot of things,” says Bennett, who would become deputy assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs (or, simply, an aide). “They could be funny, they could be dramatic. They could be windows into the character of these people. You’re just around for a lot of stuff, and they’ve got to trust you to keep their confidence.”

If you betray that confidence in a self-serving way, Bennett says, your career in politics will likely end. Hutchinson, however, “did the right thing.”

She “didn’t have enormous power,” Bennett says. “She had enormous access,” which can be its own kind of power. “It’s a power that is very tough to use outside of very, very rare circumstances.”

That rare circumstance arrived Tuesday: A young civilian, previously unknown to most Americans, told Congress what she saw and heard while in the innermost sanctum of government at a crucial moment in history.

“We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie,” Hutchinson told the committee, nodding to both the position she had and the position she occupied physically. “And it was something that was really hard in that moment to digest, knowing what I’d been hearing down the hall…”

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