When thinking about the list of people in Donald Trump’s orbit who might provide useful information to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, one doesn’t necessarily think of the White House counsel. And yet, according to the New York Times, that’s precisely what’s happened.
The White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, has cooperated extensively in the special counsel investigation, sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice, including some that investigators would not have learned of otherwise, according to a dozen current and former White House officials and others briefed on the matter.
In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s fury 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 the topics of conversation between the White House counsel and Mueller’s investigators are Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the president’s pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take control of the investigation into the Russia scandal.
Whether McGahn provided investigators with information that might be used against Trump is unclear – even the president’s lawyers aren’t altogether sure – but one of the things about the Times’ report that stood out as especially notable was the White House counsel’s motivation for talking to Team Mueller.
According to the report, McGahn was skeptical of the strategy devised by members of the president’s legal defense team last year – John Dowd and Ty Cobb – who encouraged the White House counsel to answer the special counsel’s questions. In fact, McGahn grew suspicious that he was being set up as a fall guy.
Under this scenario, for example, Trump might try to tell investigators that the decisions that may have put the president in legal jeopardy, such as Comey’s firing, were McGahn’s fault. The White House counsel, therefore, started answering questions as a means of self-preservation.
Worried that Mr. Trump would ultimately blame him in the inquiry, Mr. McGahn told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.
Mr. McGahn decided to fully cooperate with Mr. Mueller. It was, he believed, the only choice he had to protect himself.
Given the circumstances, it seems McGahn was well aware of Trump’s treacherous ways, and prepared accordingly.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, Rudy Giuliani said Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team were “desperate” to leak this information to the New York Times. When Chuck Todd asked if he had any evidence to support the claim, the presidential attorney responded, “The only other one that could’ve done it was McGahn.”
Yes. Right. Exactly. I’m not in a position to know anything specific about the Times’ sourcing, but reading the article, I got the feeling the article’s authors relied on a source whose name rhymes with Schmon SchMcGhan.
For his part, Trump was not pleased with the New York Times’ article, arguing via Twitter that he “allowed” McGahn to cooperate. “The failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel [sic] Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel [sic], he must be a John Dean type ‘RAT.’ But I allowed him and all others to testify - I didn’t have to. I have nothing to hide,” the president added.
Of course, if Trump had nothing to hide, he’d volunteer to answer Mueller’s questions, which has not happened.
As for the president referring to John Dean as a “RAT,” let’s not brush past this too quickly. At face value, the president seemed to argue that Dean helped expose the truth about Richard Nixon’s crimes – and Trump apparently looks back at those actions as wrong.
The message to current White House officials seems far from subtle: this president expects people around him, many of whom may be aware of wrongdoing, not to “rat” on him.
Postscript: Trump added yesterday that unnamed journalists didn’t like the New York Times’ article and called the president to apologize. With this in mind, it’s worth pausing to remember that the president routinely describes conversations that happened entirely in his imagination as if they were real.