John M. Crisp: Did Trump try to grab the steering wheel? Does it matter?

© Tribune News Service

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to his supporters at a rally on the Ellipse on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, near the White House in Washington, D.C. His supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol after the rally. - Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS

One of the most curious episodes to emerge from the House Jan. 6 committee hearings was described by Cassidy Hutchinson this way:

After former President Donald Trump was told by the head of his Secret Service detail, Robert Engel, that the assets to take him to join the unruly crowd at the Capitol were not available, Hutchinson says, “the president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel, Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said ‘Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel, we’re going back to the West Wing, we’re not going to the Capitol.’ Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge toward Bobby Engel.”

It’s a strange episode. But did it really happen? And how much does it matter?

Hold those questions for a moment. First, the alleged incident provides, at the least, an occasion to consider the nature and credibility of the testimony that the Jan. 6 committee has been collecting.

It’s worth noting that the committee’s witnesses are testifying under oath, fully aware that conviction of lying to Congress could result in a five-year prison sentence, as well as fines. This in itself lends credibility to the witnesses. It also may help explain why other witnesses have refused to respond to requests for testimony or to subpoenas.

In the steering-wheel incident, it’s also important to parse Hutchinson’s testimony carefully.

Hutchinson was a top aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. She spent her days with Meadows, and her office in the White House was a short distance from the president’s. She was in a position to see and hear a lot.

But in her testimony Hutchinson is careful to distinguish between what she saw and heard herself and what she heard from others. She was in the presidential motorcade from the Ellipse to the White House, but she was not in the car with the president.

Hutchinson’s knowledge of the steering-wheel incident stems, she says, from a conversation she had with Anthony Ornato, deputy chief of staff, in the presence of Robert Engel, the head of Trump’s security detail. Ornato told her about the incident, and Engel did not dispute the account.

Trump and his defenders immediately attacked Hutchinson, calling her testimony “hearsay.” In evidentiary theory, hearsay has a precise meaning that is irrelevant in this case; the Jan. 6 committee hearings are not judicial proceedings. The inherent negative connotations of the term “hearsay” are simply being used to discredit Hutchinson and her testimony.

But here’s an important distinction: While Hutchinson’s knowledge of the steering-wheel incident is secondhand, her knowledge of the conversation that reported the incident to her is firsthand.

So did the incident really happen? After the hearing, NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander tweeted: “A source close to the Secret Service tells me both Bobby Engel, the lead agent, and the presidential limousine/SUV driver are prepared to testify under oath that neither man was assaulted and that Mr. Trump never lunged at the steering wheel.”

On the other hand, the story has the ring of truth. Trump is better known for his impulsive anger than his self-discipline and restraint. Further, if you’re going to fabricate stories about Trump, why concoct one so outrageous that it beggars the imagination?

In short, we don’t know if the steering-wheel incident occurred or not, nor are we likely to unless Engel and Ornato testify under oath.

Does the incident actually matter? If it’s true, it’s deeply troubling to picture our commander in chief losing control of his emotions and lunging at a Secret Service agent.

But the incident doesn’t seem very important compared with the allegation that although Trump knew the mob was armed, he urged his angry supporters to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Hutchinson testifies to firsthand knowledge of this charge: She was there, she heard it, and she has asserted it under oath.

Of course, Trump may be entirely innocent. If there is exculpatory evidence, somebody — Meadows, Jim Jordan, Steve Bannon, Kevin McCarthy, even Trump himself — should provide it. Under oath.