As the White House waited for the special counsel’s redacted report to come out this week, they were reportedly biting their nails in particular about what ex-White House counsel Don McGahn told Robert Mueller.
Now that the report is out, it’s easy to understand why.
McGahn was an essential witness in the obstruction of justice portion of the investigation, telling Mueller in detail about his firsthand experiences with Trump’s efforts to block, derail and terminate the special counsel probe.
The most gripping details involve Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to force McGahn to orchestrate Mueller’s ouster.
It started in June 2017, when Trump first learned from the Washington Post that he was personally under investigation for obstruction of justice. Until that point, the President frequently insisted to the press that he wasn’t personally a target of the investigation into Russia’s election interference.
Trump erupted, lashing out on Twitter about the “WITCH HUNT” being led by “some very bad and conflicted people!” On Saturday June 17, Trump called McGahn from Camp David and directed him to get rid of Mueller over these supposed conflicts.
As McGahn recalled it, Trump said, “You gotta do it. You gotta call Rod.”
McGahn and his advisers thought claims that Mueller’s team was conflicted because some of the investigators had donated to Democratic politicians were “silly” and “not real,” and he was disturbed by the call, he told Mueller. In his telling, as a child of the Reagan era, he wanted no part in asking the deputy attorney general to fire the special counsel; he wanted to be like Judge Robert Bork rather than “Saturday Night Massacre Bork,” McGahn said.
But the requests kept coming, escalating in specificity and urgency.
“Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel,” Trump apparently said during their second conversation.
McGahn told Mueller he felt “trapped,” as the report puts it. He decided he would resign rather than carry out the request, and made plans to do so.
As Reince Priebus told the special counsel, McGahn felt compelled to leave because Trump was asking him to “do crazy shit.” Priebus and then-White House adviser Steve Bannon successfully persuaded him not to.
Then came January 2018. The New York Times and Washington Post published back-to-back reports about the McGahn-Mueller ouster fiasco, and McGahn’s plans to quit over it.
The President reignited the pressure campaign. This time, Trump’s personal attorney called McGahn’s attorney to request that McGahn put out a statement denying the whole story. McGahn’s attorney said they would not do so because the core allegations in the press reports were accurate.
Trump seethed. On Feb. 5, 2018, he told then-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter that the initial Times story was “bullshit,” as Porter later recounted. Trump directed Porter to require McGahn to write a letter “for our records” about the story’s inaccuracies, trashing McGahn as a “lying bastard.”
“If he doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him,” Trump said of McGahn, according to Porter.
Finally, on Feb. 5, 2018, then-Chief of Staff John Kelly arranged for McGahn to meet with Trump in the Oval Office to hash things out. Again, Trump pressed his White House counsel to come out against the article, allegedly saying it did not “look good.”
Kelly allowed that the meeting was “a little tense” in his own interview with the special counsel.
But McGahn held firm, saying that the conversations had occurred, that he’d told Mueller about them, and that the discussions he had with Trump were not protected by attorney-client privilege.
“What-about these notes?” Trump asked McGahn, per McGahn’s recollection. “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
McGahn said he did so because he is a “real lawyer” and that it’s his legal responsibility to keep an accurate record of events.
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Trump replied, per McGahn. “He did not take notes. ”
The special counsel seemed to find McGahn’s version of events credible evidence that the President took these actions knowing they were inappropriate.
“Substantial evidence indicates that in repeatedly urging McGahn to dispute that he was ordered to have the Special Counsel terminated, the President acted for the purpose of influencing McGahn’s account in order to deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the President’s conduct towards the investigation,” Mueller wrote.
McGahn quit his post in October 2018 after helping shepherd Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. He and Trump were reportedly on quite bad terms by the time of his departure.