Former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn confirmed before a congressional panel last week that former President Donald Trump urged him to oust special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia, according to a transcript released Wednesday.
The closed-door interview on June 4 was the culmination of a two-year court fight Democrats waged against the Trump administration, putting McGahn on record before the House Judiciary Committee on some of the most pivotal moments of the Trump presidency, including when Trump directed McGahn to pressure Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller – and McGahn refused.
McGahn said on Friday he considered Trump’s request “a point of no return.”
“If the Acting Attorney General received what he thought was a direction from the counsel to the President to remove a special counsel, he would either have to remove the special counsel or resign,” McGahn said. “We are still talking about the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ decades and decades later.”
McGahn told the committee that he didn’t call Rosenstein in part because he feared that Rosenstein could resign if he felt pressured.
“What I was not going to do is cause any sort of chain reaction that would cause this to spiral out of control in a way that wasn’t in the best interests, at least as a lawyer, what I thought was in the best interests of my client, which was the President,” said McGahn.
McGahn had already described Trump’s maneuvers to the Mueller team, but the Trump administration had blocked him from repeating the interviews with Congress.
A president obsessed
In McGahn’s long-awaited interview with the House Judiciary Committee, the former White House counsel described Trump as a President obsessed with Mueller’s investigation and often close to touching a political third rail.
McGahn told the committee about how Trump had repeated conversations with him about Mueller, who he believed might have conflicts of interest and should be fired. The issue prompted Trump to demand that McGahn send a message to the Justice Department to oust Mueller, and he told McGahn to call Mueller’s then-boss, Rosenstein, to get rid of the special counsel.
“We were having the same conversation again and again and again, coupled with the fact it was a Saturday and it – you know, after the investiture of Neil Gorsuch, I thought we were going to take a little pause over the weekend and smile for once. But we did not smile; we continued wanting to talk about conflicts of interest and Bob Mueller,” McGahn said of his phone call with Trump.
He also described Trump’s voice on the call: “He wasn’t angry. He was certainly focused. The tone certainly had an intensity to it.”
McGahn told the committee he wasn’t comfortable making the call the President requested, because it would have taken him “out of the lane of my job.” He also feared Rosenstein potentially resigning, if he felt he was pushed too far.
At the time, McGahn also feared he could be tainted by the appearance of meddling, or become a witness, and he consulted with his private attorney – though details on why he felt that way weren’t shared in the hearing, because McGahn’s attorney said they were privileged.
Separately, McGahn characterized Trump telling then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after Mueller’s appointment, that Sessions should resign as a “rather historic potential moment.” McGahn characterized Trump’s unhappiness with Sessions as “having a showdown with his attorney general … they don’t teach you this in law school.”
He also explained how Trump sometimes attempted to use McGahn like a personal lawyer rather than an advocate for the presidency. In one instance, when Trump questioned whether Mueller had a conflict of interest because he at one time had a membership at a Trump golf club, McGahn noted Trump was “talking to the wrong lawyer.”
Often, the committee read to McGahn what Mueller had documented as Trump’s words in his report.
“Yes, there it is. Right,” McGahn replied at one such point. “That’s what he said.”
And as for Trump saying, “This is the end of my presidency. I’m f***ed,” when Mueller was appointed in 2017, McGahn let the President’s words speak for themselves. “I’m not sure what I can add to bring it to life more than what’s on the page,” he said.
Testimony affirms public report
Though Democrats said they were pleased with the substance of the interview, McGahn’s retelling of his interactions largely affirmed Mueller’s final, public report, and the questioning was limited to topics documented in the Mueller investigation. McGahn was interviewed by both Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in alternating rounds.
“All told, Mr. McGahn’s testimony gives us a fresh look at how dangerously close President Trump brought us to, in Mr. McGahn’s words, the ‘point of no return,’ ” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York.
Republican staffers on the Judiciary Committee released a memo in response to the release of the transcript, charging that the McGahn interview “failed to substantiate any Democrat allegations of wrongdoing by President Trump.”
McGahn served as the top lawyer on Trump’s 2016 campaign and was White House counsel until fall 2018. He was one of the most significant witnesses against Trump, sitting for interviews with the FBI and prosecutors five times in Mueller’s investigation as the special counsel sought to chronicle Trump’s obstructive acts.
The Mueller report found that McGahn refused to follow the President’s directions to fire Mueller “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” referring to one of the darkest periods of the Nixon presidency during the Watergate scandal. Trump also told McGahn to deny he had tried to fire Mueller, but the lawyer wouldn’t do it, according to the special counsel’s report. Trump has denied the episodes with McGahn – but the interview with Congress has allowed McGahn to again put on record – under threat of criminal penalty if he were to lie – that Trump pushed to shut down the Mueller investigation.
McGahn was also privy to the situation that led to Trump firing then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied to the FBI about his contact with Russia in late 2016, Mueller wrote.
Democrats sought McGahn’s testimony shortly after Mueller’s investigation ended in spring 2019. After a lengthy court battle – and stonewalling from the Trump administration – they finally struck an agreement with the Biden Justice Department this spring that allowed for McGahn’s appearance last week.
McGahn had been represented in the standoff in court by administration attorneys claiming he was immune from congressional testimony because of his high-ranking position in the White House. William Burck, a private attorney for McGahn, represented him during his interview.
The Mueller report did not conclude that the President committed a crime like obstruction of justice, but it also made clear that it did not exonerate him, leaving the decision of whether to indict Trump to then-Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department’s top political appointees. They declined to prosecute the President.
Under the agreement for McGahn’s testimony, House Judiciary Committee members and staff could ask him about the incidents documented in the Mueller report but unable to press McGahn on other scandals that occurred during Trump’s presidency.
McGahn’s private attorney stepped in to stop an answer only a few times Friday, according to the person connected to McGahn, because the committee was potentially veering toward privileged conversations between McGahn and his lawyer. The Justice Department was vocal on some aspects of what McGahn couldn’t answer, the person said, though that wouldn’t be unusual for hearings like these.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.