WASHINGTON – Donald F. McGahn II, who served as White House adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, told lawmakers that episodes involving him in special adviser Robert S. Mueller’s report on Russia III, were correct – which one Mr Trump has denied pressuring him to have the Justice Department sack Mr Mueller.
A 241-page transcript of Mr. McGahn’s closed-door testimony from last week, released by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, contained no major revelations. But it opened a window into Mr McGahn’s struggles to become the best lawyer in a chaotic White House, under a president who often pushed the boundaries of appropriate behavior.
“They don’t teach you that in law school,” Mr. McGahn said of an episode he witnessed in which Mr. Trump was trying to get his then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, because he had recused himself from the Russian Inquiry.
Mr. McGahn was a major witness to many of the episodes described in Volume Two of the Mueller Report, which focused on actions Mr. Trump took to obstruct the investigation. After then Attorney General William P. Barr – who said none of these episodes constituted an indictable crime – released most of the report in 2019, Democrats subpoenaed Mr. McGahn , hoping for a dramatic television audience.
But Trump’s Justice Department fought to block the subpoena, leading to a long and complex legal battle. It ended when Biden’s Justice Department struck a deal with House Democrats to allow Mr McGahn to testify, but within strict limits: it would take place in private, and he could only be questioned. on information in the public portions of the Mueller Report.
While the testimony was late and limited, the chairman of the Judicial Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, called it important.
“Mr. McGahn has provided the committee with substantial new information,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement accompanying the publication of the transcript. He added, “All in all, Mr. McGahn’s testimony gives us a new look at the dangerously close proximity of President Trump has brought us, in Mr. McGahn’s words, closer to the “point of no return.”
Mr McGahn used the phrase when a staff lawyer for the House Democrats questioned him at length about Mr Trump’s efforts to get him to tell then Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein of to impeach Mr Mueller for a questionable claim that the special advocate had a conflict of interest – which Mr McGahn refused to do, saying it could “get this out of hand.”
After Mr. Trump called him home on a Saturday in 2017 to force him again to tell Mr. Rosenstein to oust Mr. Mueller, for example, Mr. McGahn said, he was deeply concerned.
“After I hung up on the phone with the president, how did I feel?” ” he said. “Phew. Frustrated, confused, trapped. Lots of emotions.
Fearing that the transmission of the directive might instead prompt Mr Rosenstein to resign and trigger a crisis akin to President Nixon’s Saturday night massacre in the Watergate scandal, Mr McGahn instead prepared to resign if Mr Trump did not give in. He has communicated his intention to several colleagues in the White House, but not to Mr. Trump himself. But instead, the crisis ended for a while.
In his testimony, Mr. McGahn admitted that he was concerned that if Mr. Trump sacked Mr. Mueller or otherwise interfered with the investigation, the action would be used to accuse the president of obstructing justice. But he was also careful to present his concerns as public relations, without acknowledging that no legal line was ever crossed.
“That didn’t mean the president was interfering, but it would certainly be easy to make him look like that,” McGahn said.
Internal fury over Mr. Trump’s previous attempt to oust Mr. Mueller resumed in January 2018, when the New York Times and then the Washington Post reported on the meeting.
Mr Trump was enraged and prompted Mr McGahn to make a statement denying that the episode had happened, but he refused to do so – because, he said, the Times story was essentially exact. (Mr McGahn said The Post’s follow-up to The Times story was clearer on one issue – whether he had conveyed his threat directly to Mr Trump – because Mr McGahn had been a source for The Post in order to explain this nuance.)
Mr. McGahn had already informed Mr. Mueller’s team of the event – Mr. Trump had ordered him to cooperate with the special advocate – and he feared Mr. Mueller was considering charging him with making a false statement to law enforcement. if he contradicted his account.
Mr. McGahn also called Mr. Trump’s claim that he never even suggested firing Mr. Mueller “disappointing” because Mr. Trump “certainly considered the idea. Definitely seemed to ask a number of people about this. I have certainly had a number of conversations with me about something like this. “
The struggle over whether Mr. McGahn would wrongly say that Mr. Trump never asked him to have Mr. Rosenstein withdraw the special advocate also led to a landmark moment in the Mueller Report where Mr. Trump berated Mr. McGahn for taking notes of their conversations, saying it wasn’t something Roy M. Cohn – a notorious lawyer who was struck off the bar for unethical conduct, but which Mr. Trump admired – would have made. Cohn died in 1986.
“I didn’t really respond,” Mr. McGahn said. “I made my point. And that wasn’t the first time Roy Cohn had sort of – Roy’s ghost walked into the Oval Office, so that didn’t seem like a point worth responding to and, you know, he’s the president, he gets the last word. “