Two years later, Democrats got their man.
In closed-door testimony Friday that ran for more than seven hours on Capitol Hill, Don McGahn, former lead counsel to the Trump White House, provided members of the House Judiciary Committee with damning details of his eyewitness view to the former president’s first years in office, including Trump’s efforts to kill an investigation into his dealings with Russia.
The exchange was a long time coming.
House Democrats had subpoenaed McGahn in April 2019, seeking his insights into allegations that members of Trump’s team had colluded with Russian figures during his 2016 presidential campaign — a topic that became the subject of a 22-month investigation by now-former special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Trump White House directed McGahn to defy the subpoena as part of its broad stonewalling of Democratic investigations. The House sued to force McGahn’s testimony, leading to a protracted court battle that ended only last month, when the two sides struck an agreement for the former White House counsel to testify before the House Judiciary Committee behind closed doors.
Friday’s marathon proceeding put McGahn in the hot seat between some of Trump’s staunchest Capitol Hill allies — who were incensed that the former White House counsel had rebuffed Trump’s entreaties to fire Mueller — and the Judiciary Committee’s liberal Democrats, who were equally piqued that McGahn had denied their request to testify before Congress.
At different turns during the daylong interview, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, described McGahn as “cooperative,” then “somewhat difficult.” Asked to decipher the discrepancy, Nadler was cryptic.
“He’s cooperative some of the time,” he said.
Nadler indicated that McGahn confirmed elements of the Mueller report alleging that Trump tried to undermine the investigation despite his counsel’s warnings.
“Mr. McGahn was clearly distressed by President Trump’s refusal to follow his legal advice, again and again, and he shed new light on several troubling events today,” Nadler said in a statement after McGahn’s interview ended.
Yet, if Democrats did not glean any major new revelations about Trump’s time in the White House on Friday, they were claiming at least one victory: the legitimacy of Congress’s authority to compel the cooperation of witnesses, even those in the executive branch.
A transcript of McGahn’s interview will be made public in the coming days as part of the agreement, but the exact timing is unclear. Nadler said a copy will be presented to Trump, the Department of Justice and McGahn’s attorneys.
According to Mueller’s report, Trump directed McGahn to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to retract his recusal from the investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russian 2016 election interference. McGahn defended Sessions’s recusal as proper, to Trump’s alleged dismay.
McGahn further testified before the special counsel’s office that in June 2017, Trump called him at home and directed him to tell Rosenstein to oust Mueller by claiming the special counsel had conflicts of interest.
“McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request,” Mueller’s report states. “McGahn considered the president’s request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes.”
Trump then called McGahn a second time to follow up on his demand. McGahn “recalled feeling trapped” because he didn’t plan to follow through, so he decided to resign.
Then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-chief strategist Steve Bannon ultimately convinced McGahn to remain in his position. Trump did not ask McGahn whether he had followed through on his demand the next time they saw each other.
Several months later, in January 2018, The New York Times reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to take steps to get Mueller fired. According to the Mueller report, Trump’s personal counsel called McGahn’s attorney and said the then-president wanted him to publicly deny the report. But McGahn refused.
McGahn ultimately stayed at the White House for another nine months until his departure in October 2018.
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