House Committee Drops Transcript From McGahn’s Closed Door Hearing

on August 23, 2018 in Washington, DC.
White House Counsel Don McGahn in August 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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June 9, 2021 4:05 p.m.

The House Judiciary Committee has released the transcript of the closed-door June 4 hearing with Don McGahn, revealing how the former White House counsel reacted to President Trump’s demands with disgust, refusal, and, eventually, attempts to iron things out.

The interview shows how McGahn worried that firing Robert Mueller would implicate himself in obstruction of justice, and how he declined repeated orders from the former president out of concern that following them could expose either himself or Trump to criminal liability.

While Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said in a press release that McGahn had provided “substantial new information,” much of the testimony rehashed the Mueller report and was constrained by the ground rules set by the Justice Department for McGahn’s testimony.

The 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,’” Nadler said.

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But in McGahn’s downplaying of Trump’s motivations, and spin of other episodes where Trump sought to obstruct Mueller’s probe, McGahn often tried to resist the conclusions Mueller made about Trump’s conduct, though he would consistently concede that the facts in the report were accurate.

When questioned by a Republican lawyer for the House, McGahn denied that any of the conduct discussed in the Mueller report violated the law in his view.

“You didn’t witness anything the President did that would be a violation of the obstruction statute?” the lawyer asked.

“Correct,” McGahn said.

‘Lying or Playing Dumb’

When pressed on why he recommended that Michael Flynn, then-national security adviser and now full-fledged Qanon celebrity, be fired after his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, McGahn said that he knew Flynn was either “lying or playing dumb in a way that would mean the President ought to have some significant trust issues with Flynn going forward.”

“You know, as a general, served our country, but, you know, it’s a tough call,” he added. “But based upon what we knew, it just — it didn’t ring true that he just forgot.”

McGahn later said vaguely that he thought he read about Trump’s pardoning of Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI, but that he never spoke to Trump about that or anything else since he left the White House.

Almost Saturday Night Massacre

House lawyers focused on an episode where Trump learned that Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel. Trump, the Mueller report revealed, said at the meeting “I’m fucked,” and demanded that Jeff Sessions resign from his position as attorney general.

After hemming and hawing from McGahn, in which he asked to read from the report and said that his recollection was fuzzy, the former White House counsel slipped into marveling at the episode, telling the House investigators that it was “a rather historic potential moment here, where the President is having a showdown with his Attorney General.”

“That doesn’t happen every day,” McGahn said. “They don’t teach you this in law school.”

While he tried to paint Sessions’ potential firing as primarily an optics problem, he later admitted that there could have been knock-on legal implications.

“Just because the initial act is legal doesn’t mean it couldn’t cause other issues that raise legal problems,” he said. “Happens all the time.”

House lawyers were constrained by an agreement they reached to secure McGahn’s testimony, after spending two years in court fighting to enforce a congressional subpoena. That agreement restricted McGahn’s testimony to events covered in the Mueller report.

That being said, McGahn said at one point that while counsel he was trying to avoid causing a “chain reaction that would cause this to spiral out of control in a way that wasn’t in the best interests . . . of my client, which was the President.”

In that case, McGahn was referring to a June 2017 call from Trump in which the former president directed the White House counsel to call Rod Rosenstein and have him raise the issue of Mueller supposedly being conflicted out of acting as special counsel.

The “chain reaction” in that case would have been Rosenstein resigning, McGahn said, adding that it could have been a repeat of the Nixon-era Saturday Night Massacre.

“It was time to hit the brakes and not make a phone call to Rod to raise this issue that the President had continued to raise with me,” he added.

McGahn testified that he was concerned that firing Mueller might constitute obstruction of justice, and that both he and the President were worried about their own liability. He also affirmed that Trump had asked him to put out the false statement that Trump had never asked him to have Rosenstein remove Mueller, knowing that it could expose him to criminal prosecution.

Calling Rosenstein and asking him to remove Mueller, McGahn testified, could have turned him from a witness in the already-ongoing Mueller probe into “an appearance that somehow I was meddling in an investigation.”

At one point, McGahn said he was “disappointed” to see Trump go on TV in June of 2019 and say that he never suggested firing Mueller.

“Well, you know, he certainly entertained the idea,” he testified. “Certainly seemed to ask a number of people about it. Certainly had a number of conversations with me about something along those lines.”

McGahn recounted how he was “serious” about nearly resigning in the aftermath of the episode, going so far as to go to his office to pack up his belongings and to tell Reince Priebus and “Steve Bannon, whose title still remains murky to me.”

The pair eventually talked McGahn out of resigning, though the former White House counsel frames his actions in many of these episodes as being for Trump’s benefit.

After Trump tried to convince McGahn to publicly contest an accurate press report about the order to terminate Mueller, McGahn said that he had refused to do it in part because “it would be perceived as [Trump] trying to potentially get me to alter my testimony.”

McGahn added that, at one point, he talked to the Washington Post in an effort to clear up a story to say that he had never directly told Trump he intended to resign.

After that, Trump referred to McGahn as a “lying bastard,” the Mueller report notes.

McGahn told the House that he found Trump’s response “disappointing.”

“Because I’m not a lying bastard,” he added, when asked why.

Some Waffling Over the Firing of Comey

McGahn’s account of Trump’s decision to fire Comey created some fuzziness around the timeline events before the May9, 2017 termination.

Recounting a morning meeting the day before where Stephen Miller read an unhinged draft of Trump’s termination letter, McGahn recalled Trump softening on the idea throughout the course of the meeting.

Trump had “seemed” to have made up his mind to fire Comey, McGahn said, “but then later in the meeting it seems like maybe he hadn’t.”

“So, at the risk of having it both ways, one could say he made up his mind then, but, you know, it seemed like maybe he hadn’t quite gotten there,” McGahn told the House

Nevertheless, McGahn confirmed the Mueller report’s account of the stall tactic that was suggested to Trump: to let his top appointees at the Justice Department weigh in on Comey’s status. Coming up with a rationale to fire Comey was ultimately outsourced to Rosenstein, who concluded that firing Comey would be justified, but for a reason very different than Trump’s. Rosenstein said Comey had mishandled the Clinton email probe with his extraneous public commentary on her conduct.

Speaking to the House investigators, McGahn waffled on the question of whose “idea” it was really to fire Comey: Trump’s or Rosenstein’s.

“Before talking to Rosenstein, the President had said he had decided to fire Comey. So — you know, Rod also recommended it. So I don’t know what else I could say on that point,” McGahn said. He later conceded that the narrative the White House press shop was pushing at the time — that it was “all” Rosenstein’s idea — was incorrect.

“It was the President’s idea initially, I suppose,” McGahn said. But he also did not like the White House putting out rationales for firing Comey that were different than the reasoning outlined by Rosenstein.

“History has taught us that, when you go out to try to explain and reexplain and explain some more and explain some more, that doesn’t end well,” McGahn said. “So the message there was, you essentially have one shot to get this right, so go out and try to get it right, and don’t have an evolving narrative of other rationales.”

Keeping Sessions’ Head Off the Chopping Block

McGahn told the House he wasn’t aware of a bizarre episode in which Trump tapped Corey Lewandowski to try to get Sessions to release a public statement limiting the scope of Mueller’s investigation. But when Trump asked his chief of staff, Reince Priebus to get Sessions ousted, Preibus went to McGahn for advice, according to McGahn’s account to the House.

McGahn told Priebus not to carry out Trump’s order, because, even if it was lawful for Trump to fire his attorney general, it “could’ve led to other legal issues.” McGahn even advised Priebus to talk to a personal lawyer, because it would be good to “check with somebody who’s not in the mix,” McGahn told the House.

“I thought that firing Sessions in this instance would lead to all sorts of other problems,” McGahn said. “And I didn’t really think it was something that the chief of staff ought to do.”

Sessions had previously provoked Trump’s anger by recusing from the Russia probe in March 2017. In his House interview, McGahn was grilled on the directive he received from Trump to convince Sessions not to resign. McGahn tried to downplay that Trump was interested in protecting himself in the investigation. “His fear would be that investigations could occur and not really have a politically accountable person at the top of the Department, and could potentially be weaponized to derail his policy objectives,” McGahn claimed. McGahn also had some interesting spin for why he called Sessions — and later Sessions’ chief of staff and then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — to discuss the recusal decision.

“I emphasized the fact that recusal needs to be done properly and that Jeff ought not recuse simply to recuse because the issue that was currently confronting him in the press was separate from any sort of recusal issue,” McGahn claimed to the House.

Read the transcript here:

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