White House counsel Donald McGahn has “cooperated extensively” with special counsel Robert Mueller and his team’s investigation into whether President Trump obstructed justice in his attempts to end the probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the New York Times reported on Saturday. McGahn did so, according to the Times’ sources, in an effort to protect himself from criminal liability after becoming fearful that Trump would try to pass blame for the obstruction onto him.
McGahn reportedly provided investigators with details about how Trump has sought to control the Russia investigation, including the president’s comments and actions during key moments like the firing of FBI director James Comey. He also provided them with information they had not previously been aware of, including McGahn’s involvement in Trump’s efforts to fire Mueller last December.
But how much harm McGahn’s supposed transparency could ultimately do to Trump, if any, remains an open question. McGahn reportedly shared “a mix of information both potentially damaging and favorable to the president” and told investigators that he never saw Trump exceed his legal authority as president. So it sounds like there was no smoking gun, but McGahn’s insight might prove useful Mueller is building an obstruction case based on a series of Trump’s actions, rather than just one.
It’s also not clear if McGahn has offered anything to help the Mueller team on the other main part of their investigation: whether or not members of the Trump campaign, transition team, or administration have colluded with Russia — or if he has implicated any other members of the Trump team.
And another unknown is whether the president understands how much McGahn has shared with Mueller — particularly since Trump, per the Times, “wrongly believed that Mr. McGahn would act as a personal lawyer would for clients and solely defend his interests to investigators, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking.” Trump responded to the story on Saturday night, characteristically tweeting that there was nothing to see here, other than the “witch hunt” in progress. (Update: The story also led to a full Twitter tirade on Sunday morning.)
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, released a statement stressing that everything was just fine between Trump and McGahn, insisting that, “The president and Don have a great relationship,” and Trump “appreciates all the hard work he’s done, particularly his help and expertise with the judges, and the Supreme Court.”
But the Times report additionally suggests that Trump’s legal strategy has been even more dubious than was already apparent. The personal lawyers he hired following the appointment of Mueller, Ty Cobb and John M. Dowd, “have said they took Mr. Trump at his word that he did nothing wrong and sold him on an open-book strategy,” convincing the president that if he and the White House cooperated with Mueller’s team, the investigation would be over in only a few months. (And Cobb, who was overheard by a reporter in a Washington restaurant calling McGahn a leaker and “spy” last September, told the Times he still thinks the transparency was a good idea.)
By the time Mueller’s office asked to interview McGahn for the investigation last fall, he had already grown concerned enough about liability to hire his own lawyer. Trump and his personal lawyers didn’t object to the interview, following the “open-book strategy,” and allowing Mueller’s investigators such access unnerved McGahn:
At the same time, Mr. Trump was blaming Mr. McGahn for his legal woes, yet encouraging him to speak to investigators. Mr. McGahn and his lawyer grew suspicious. They began telling associates that they had concluded that the president had decided to let Mr. McGahn take the fall for decisions that could be construed as obstruction of justice, like the Comey firing, by telling the special counsel that he was only following shoddy legal advice from Mr. McGahn.
Telling others that he didn’t want to end up in a cell like President Nixon’s White House counsel John W. Dean, McGahn decided to protect himself and supposedly began fully cooperating with Mueller. It wasn’t until months later that he and his lawyer realized they had made the classic mistake of assuming Trump is capable of adhering to any kind of master plan. Or as the Times puts it, “it became apparent that Mr. McGahn and [his lawyer] overestimated the amount of thought that they believed the president put into his legal strategy.”
Dean, for his part, tweeted on Saturday that McGahn was “doing right” by working with Mueller — a day after urging Trump’s staff to take a long view of their involvement in the administration:
As commentators like Marcy Wheeler have pointed out, the Times report should also be viewed as another part of McGahn’s efforts to protect himself and bolster his reputation amid any potential legal fallout. This is not new territory for him; it’s very likely that he was somehow involved in leaking the story that he had threatened to quit in an effort to save Mueller’s job last year.
McGahn seems to be fed up with his White House gig. He and Trump apparently never speak one-on-one, and he calls the ever-angry Trump “King Kong” behind his back — but he has not quit. That is a strange career decision for someone who believed his boss was setting him up to be the fall guy in a historic scandal.
In March, Politico reported that McGahn tried to leave the administration but had been stopped by Trump out of concern over who would agree replace him. If he has flipped on Trump to protect himself, it’s not clear why the story is only coming out now, or why the White House wouldn’t have already figured that out and fired or sidelined him. The Times reports that McGahn correctly saw his White House counsel responsibility as needing to protect the presidency, not the president. Like most other legally challenged Trump officials before him, he also seems to have concluded that his own reputation and freedom are more important too, but just how far he went to protect them remains to be seen.