It appears President Trump’s latest predicament is partly the result of an epic unforced error — and this time, he had nothing to do with it.
On Saturday the New York Times reported that White House Counsel Donald McGahn has “cooperated extensively” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the question of whether Trump attempted to obstruct the Russia probe. The suggestion that McGahn flipped inspired memorable tirades from Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Trump’s former Russia probe attorneys, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, had sold him on a strategy of cooperation with Mueller, as they believed Trump’s claims that he had nothing to hide. Thus, they made no effort to keep McGahn from giving Mueller three voluntary interviews over the past nine months, totaling 30 hours of testimony. According to the Times, that made McGahn suspicious:
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.
In a follow-up article published Sunday, the paper reported that McGahn had good reason to think Trump and his legal team were conspiring against him: Last fall, a Times reporter overheard Dowd and Cobb complaining about McGahn while having lunch at BLT Steak, a popular D.C. steakhouse, and the paper published snippets of their conversation. From the September 2017 report:
“The White House counsel’s office is being very conservative with this stuff,” Mr. Cobb told Mr. Dowd. “Our view is we’re not hiding anything.” Referring to Mr. McGahn, he added, “He’s got a couple documents locked in a safe.”
Mr. Cobb expressed concern about another White House lawyer he did not name. “I’ve got some reservations about one of them,” Mr. Cobb said. “I think he’s like a McGahn spy.”
Sources said that when asked for comment, “Mr. McGahn privately erupted at Mr. Cobb.”
Talking too loudly over lunch wasn’t the only misstep by Trump’s legal team. The Times reports that they only realized this weekend that they’d never asked McGahn for a full rundown of what he told Mueller’s team. McGahn’s lawyer gave the Trump team an overview of the first interview, but didn’t say what his client divulged in subsequent interactions with the special counsel.
On the Sunday shows, Trump’s allies also questioned Dowd and Cobb’s strategy of cooperation with Mueller. On ABC’s This Week, Chris Christie said it “put Don McGahn in an impossible situation, because once you waive that privilege and you turn over all those documents, Don McGahn has no choice then but to go in and answer everything, every question they could ask him.”
“It’s bad legal advice, bad lawyering, and this is a result of it,” Christie added.
At least Trump can take solace in his lawyers’ assurances that the Mueller investigation is almost over.