Cassidy Hutchinson transcript reveals new low for Trump World
As a low-level aide to Mark Meadows, then-President Trump’s chief of staff, Cassidy Hutchinson had been a witness to key events surrounding the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, so it was only a matter of time until she received a subpoena from the House Select Committee investigating the attack. After interviewing several attorneys, including one who requested a $125,000 retainer, Hutchinson was eventually contacted by Stefan Passantino, who agreed to represent her and promised that she was “never going to get a bill.”
But there was a catch. Passantino was above all a creature of “Trump World.” According to Hutchinson’s later description of their relationship, he consistently put Trump’s (and Meadows’s) interests ahead of Hutchinson’s, violating multiple rules of legal ethics and possibly committing a federal crime.
Hutchinson is young but she is not naïve. Wary of becoming too indebted to Trump World, she made a point of asking Passantino who was paying his fee. His response was a tipoff. “If you want to know at the end, we’ll let you know, but we’re not telling people where funding is coming from right now,” he said, adding, “Don’t worry, we’re taking care of you.”
The Rules of Professional Conduct allow lawyers to accept payment from someone other than the client, but they must provide adequate information to obtain “informed consent.” And even then, the lawyer must be free from “interference” with their independent professional judgment.
Passantino’s deference to instructions from the shadowy “we” violated both requirements. He deflected his client’s request for information about the funding source, based on orders from a secret principal. To paraphrase the late Princess Diana, the representation was more than a bit crowded.
Hutchinson probably thought of Passantino as a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich, a nationally prominent law firm with strong Republican connections, at whose office they met. In fact, it appears that Passantino was operating through a different firm, Elections, LLC., in which he was also a partner, with funding from the Trump-connected Save America PAC, thus creating an undisclosed conflict of interest.
Lawyers are prohibited from undertaking a representation if their professional judgment may be affected by their “responsibilities to or interests in a third party or the lawyer’s own financial … or personal interests.” Passantino’s advice to Hutchinson, as she described it, was influenced by his dedication to shielding Trump and his associates.
“We just want to focus on protecting the president,” he told her. In addition, “We want to really work to protect Eric Herschmann.” Passantino also relayed a message from Mark Meadows, who “knows you’re loyal and he knows you’ll do the right thing … and that you’re going to protect him and the boss.”
Passantino also had a personal interest in continuing to get paid. According to Save America PAC’s disclosure to the Federal Election Commission, it made 24 payments to Passantino’s Elections, LLC. in 2022, totaling over $400,000, for “legal consulting” that surely covered more Trump World clients than just Hutchinson. Passantino therefore had a powerful financial incentive to stay on the PAC’s good side.
Save America PAC’s mission is support for Trump World political figures. For example, CNN has reported that the PAC advanced $3 million to Chris Kise, one of Trump’s attorneys in the Mar-a-Lago search case. The PAC also paid over $2 million to Alina Habba, who represented Trump in multiple lawsuits in New York and Florida. Other recipients include Harmeet Dhillon, whose website boasts of joining “Team Trump Legal Action,” and the law firms of Trump attorneys James Trusty, John Rowley and Timothy Parlatore, among many others.
There was indeed a “team,” as Passantino informed Hutchinson, but its loyalty, she eventually realized, was not to the truth.
Passantino repeatedly urged Hutchinson to feign ignorance and memory loss. “The less you remember, the better,” he instructed her. When she told him what she’d heard about Trump’s attempt to join the crowd at the Capitol, Passantino admonished her to keep it to herself. “‘No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to talk about that.’” Because the committee had no way of knowing about it, there was no “need to share it with them.”
The crunch for Hutchinson came when she realized that Passantino’s counsel had led her to falsely claim lack of memory in a deposition. “I am f—ed,” she told him during a break. “I just lied.” Rather than help Hutchinson correct her testimony, as required by the ethics rules, Passantino instructed her to keep it up. “They don’t know that you can recall some of these things. So you saying ‘l don’t recall’ is an entirely acceptable response,” he said. And then, “We’re not going to give them anything,” adding, “You’re doing exactly what you should be doing.”
Hutchinson didn’t see it that way. “My loyalties [were] with the truth,” she later said, after she had changed lawyers and testified candidly before the committee.
Passantino’s conduct, as alleged by Hutchinson, might not merely have been unethical; it may also have been a federal crime. Passantino and others, including Trump advisers Jason Miller and Justin Clark, continually promised jobs to Hutchinson, dangling potential offers to keep her on the team. “We’re gonna get you a really good job in Trump World,” Passantino reportedly assured her. “You don’t need to apply other places. We’re gonna get you taken care of. We want to keep you in the family.”
It is a felony to attempt to “corruptly persuade” or engage in “misleading conduct” intended to influence “the testimony of any person in an official proceeding” or to “cause or induce any person … to withhold testimony.”
Passantino has denied wrongdoing, telling CNN that he “represented Ms. Hutchinson honorably, ethically and fully consistent with her sole interests as she communicated them to me.” Hutchinson agrees that he never directly asked her to lie. Instead, he told her that “You’re not lying if you say you don’t recall.”
Nonetheless, the House Select Committee on Jan. 6 has issued a statement expressing its “substantial concerns regarding potential efforts to obstruct its investigation, including by certain counsel (some paid by groups connected to the former president) who may have advised clients to provide false or misleading testimony to the committee,” and urging “the Department of Justice to examine the facts to discern whether prosecution is warranted.”
Passantino may well be called to explain himself before a grand jury. He can invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, as have so many other Trump-connected witnesses, but that will not help him in an attorney disciplinary proceeding.
Unlike judges and juries in criminal cases, a disciplinary panel may draw an “adverse inference” from a lawyer’s assertion of the Fifth Amendment, concluding that a truthful answer would be incriminating. In the words of Passantino’s expressive young client, he’s “f—ed.”
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor Emeritus at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He is coauthor of “Exercises and Problems in Professional Responsibility” and many other books.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to clarify allegations from Hutchinson.