Oops: White House Counsel Don McGahn ‘Cooperated Extensively’ With Robert Mueller In Obstruction Probe

There’s news from Trump legal land and as usual, it isn’t great if you’re the President.

If you’ve been keeping close tabs on this ongoing soap opera, you probably remember that Don McGahn reportedly threatened to quit last year when Trump tried to have Robert Mueller fired.

According to a New York Times piece published in late January, Trump ordered the special counsel fired in June of 2017, “but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.”

If you believe the Times (and you probably should in this case), once Trump became aware that the special counsel was looking into obstruction of justice, the President made three arguments for dispatching with Mueller:

  1. First, he claimed that a dispute years ago over fees at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., prompted then-F.B.I director Mueller to resign his membership
  2. Second, Trump claimed it wasn’t possible for Mueller to be impartial because he had recently worked for a law firm that represented Jared Kushner
  3. Finally, Trump said Mueller had been interviewed to return as F.B.I. director the day before Rod Rosenstein appointed him special counsel in May

According to the Times’ sources, McGahn told Trump he would quit before he would ask the DoJ to dismiss Mueller. McGahn not only disagreed with Trump’s rationale, he also informed the President that firing Mueller would be “catastrophic”.

In March, Politico reported that McGahn would likely step down later this year.

Well on Saturday, the New York Times is out reporting that McGahn has “cooperated extensively” with the special counsel on the suspicion that Trump was setting him up to take the fall for obstruction. That’s according to “a dozen” sources who spoke to Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman. Here’s the Times:

In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s furor toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged Mr. McGahn to respond to it. He provided the investigators examining whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice a clear view of the president’s most intimate moments with his lawyer.

Among them were Mr. Trump’s comments and actions during the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and Mr. Trump’s obsession with putting a loyalist in charge of the inquiry, including his repeated urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to claim oversight of it. Mr. McGahn was also centrally involved in Mr. Trump’s attempts to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, which investigators might not have discovered without him.

That’s bad news for Trump and it gets worse – much worse.

Apparently, McGahn’s forthrightness with the special counsel stems from his attorney’s belief that the White House might be trying to set McGahn up, and that Trump’s initial willingness to cooperate with Mueller was part of that effort. To wit:

Mr. McGahn and his lawyer, William A. Burck, could not understand why Mr. Trump was so willing to allow Mr. McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him. So he and Mr. Burck devised their own strategy to do as much as possible to cooperate with Mr. Mueller to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn did nothing wrong.

According to one source, Trump assumed that McGahn would act on behalf of his client when questioned by investigators from Mueller’s team, but instead, Don “laid out how Mr. Trump tried to ensure control of the investigation, giving investigators a mix of information both potentially damaging and favorable to the president.”

McGahn did, however, say that he never witnessed Trump overstepping the powers of the presidency.

Other sources told the Times that the President views his relationship with McGahn as tenuous and questions his loyalty, but believes he benefits from the lawyer’s help on matters such as stacking the deck in the federal courts and deregulation. That said, the Times also writes that the two men “rarely speak one-on-one”. McGahn, at least two sources told the Times, refers to Trump as “King Kong” behind his back.

McGahn was reportedly not on board with John Dowd (who resigned from Trump’s legal team amid disagreements over how to handle the Mueller probe) and Ty Cobb (who “retired” in May) when it came to strategy. Let’s go to the Times one more time:

As White House counsel, not a personal lawyer, [McGahn] viewed his role as protector of the presidency, not of Mr. Trump. Allowing a special counsel to root around the West Wing could set a precedent harmful to future administrations.

But he had little ability to intervene. His relationship with the president had soured as Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

In other words, McGahn was paranoid and suspected the rest of the legal team might be advocating for transparency as part of a plan Trump had to blame everything on the White House counsel. So, in an effort to inoculate himself, Don became a cooperating witness to a degree that is highly unusual. Here’s what Solomon L. Wisenberg, a deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation told Haberman:

A prosecutor would kill for that. Oh my God, it would have been phenomenally helpful to us. It would have been like having the keys to the kingdom.

Needless to say, Trump is likely to see this as a further violation of attorney-client privilege and also of encroachment on executive privilege.

Hilariously, it appears as though McGahn was wrong. Trump was not trying to set him up. John Dowd told the Times that Mueller “snookered” McGahn and the rest of Trump’s legal team into believing that cooperation would help bring the probe to a swift end. Instead, Mueller took McGahn’s account and ran with it as part of a sweeping obstruction probe.

That characterization by Dowd seems to back up the contention of many in the legal community who, early on in the Mueller investigation, variously suggested the President’s legal team was woefully outgunned. By the time Trump went looking for better representation earlier this year, it was too late. According to multiple reports, the President was turned down by several high profile law firms.

Late last month, Trump took his public criticism of Mueller up a notch by reiterating two of the arguments mentioned above in a series of angry tweets. That July 29 Twitter harangue presaged an extraordinarily aggressive push by Rudy Giuliani to discredit the special counsel probe. That push is ongoing and has taken the form of increasingly vindictive tweets from Trump, a series of ill-advised comments from Giuliani in the media and calls for Jeff Sessions to effectively un-recuse himself on the way to shutting the probe down.

On Friday, Trump said this before traveling to the Hamptons for the weekend:


As the President would say, “we’ll see what happens”.

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