The January 6 committee made a chilling allegation Monday, claiming it had evidence that a Trump-backed attorney called on a key witness to mislead the committee about details they remembered.
Though the committee declined to identify the individuals, CNN has learned that Stefan Passantino, Trump’s chief ethics attorney, is the attorney who allegedly advised his then-client, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson , telling the committee she didn’t recall details 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 from Hutchinson, other sources told CNN. Hutchinson inquired about the financial situation at the time, but the committee said he was never given the details.
Over the summer, Hutchinson appeared as a blockbuster witness for the committee, providing key insight into Trump’s state of mind and actions prior to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. Before her public testimony, Hutchinson dumped Passantino and got a new attorney.
When asked about the pressure on Hutchinson after Monday’s hearing, committee member Zoe Lofgren told CNN, “She was advised to say she didn’t remember anything when she did it. So this is pretty serious stuff.”
The episode is just one of several cases in which the committee has accused members close to Trump of attempting to obstruct the panel’s investigation.
Two sources familiar with the situation told CNN that Hutchinson discussed the episode with the Justice Department. CNN previously reported that Hutchinson cooperated with the Jan. 6 Justice Department inquiry after she became a key public witness in the House of Representatives inquiry.
CNN reached out to the Justice Department for comment.
Passantino has not been charged with any crime. He said House investigators never asked him for an interview.
In a statement to CNN, Passantino said he did not advise Hutchinson to mislead the committee. “I have represented Mrs Hutchinson honestly, ethically and in full accordance with her sole interests as she has communicated them to me. I believed that Ms. Hutchinson was honest and cooperative with the committee throughout the various interview sessions in which I represented her.”
Passantino pointed out that he says it’s not uncommon for people to change lawyers “because their interests or strategies change.” He also said political committees sometimes pick up client fees “at the request of the client.”
In response to an allegation by the committee that he shared her testimony with other attorneys and the press, despite being forbidden to do so by her, he said: “External communications on behalf of Ms. Hutchinson while I was her attorney were with their express approval.”
As of Tuesday, Passantino’s professional bio had been removed from the website of a Midwest-based law firm of which he was a partner — and he acknowledged in his statement that he was on leave from the firm “given the distraction of this matter.” That firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, said Tuesday it was not involved in the situation and Hutchinson was not a customer.
Passantino said he remains a partner at Elections LLC.
The Jan. 6 House of Representatives committee said during the summer hearings it was concerned about possible witness tampering. CNN reported that the witness was Hutchinson.
The committee’s summary said the panel is aware of “several efforts by President Trump to contact Special Committee witnesses. At least one of these circumstances is known to the Department of Justice.”
Then, on Monday, the committee revisited the issue in the summary of the final report as the investigation was handed over to the Justice Department.
According to the report, “the attorney had advised the witness that, in certain circumstances, the witness might tell the committee that she did not remember facts, although she did remember them.”
“When the witness raised concerns with her attorney about this approach,” the attorney said, according to the summary, “You don’t know what you know, [witness]. You don’t know that you can remember some of these things. So your statement ‘I don’t remember’ is a perfectly acceptable response to that.”
“The attorney pointed out to the client a specific issue that would cast President Trump in a bad light: ‘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 attempt to influence her testimony and we are concerned that these efforts may have been a strategy to prevent the committee from discovering the truth .”
As part of their profession, lawyers are required to follow extensive ethical guidelines, including avoiding conflicts of interest that could interfere with their representation of a client. According to legal ethics experts, a lawyer who influences his client’s testimony in a way that is not entirely true could be seen as potentially obstructing an investigation.
Elections LLC, a political law firm that Passantino and other Trump attorneys 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. Save America’s PAC distributions to the firm of legal counsel total more than $150,000 in 2021 and approximately $275,000 in 2022. The firm has also worked for major Republican congressional campaigns.
This year, Trump’s Save America PAC has made payments to several law firms representing witnesses in the Jan. 6 investigation and in Mar-a-Lago. A problem only arises when the lawyer does not follow the client’s wishes, say legal experts and professional standards.