WASHINGTON — Former White House counsel Donald McGahn detailed for the House Judiciary Committee on Friday how former president Donald Trump attempted to stymie a federal probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election — bombshell revelations that might once have fueled additional impeachment charges, were they not already public and had it not taken more than two years for Democrats to secure his testimony.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who led the Democrats’ exhaustive campaign to compel McGahn’s testimony, emerged from the meeting after nearly six hours but refused to discuss the closed-door interview. He said only that the terms of McGahn’s appearance limited its focus to the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller III, whose two-year Russia investigation overshadowed much of Trump’s presidency.
In a written statement Friday evening, Nadler offered that McGahn “testified at length to an extremely dangerous period in our nation’s history — in which President Trump, increasingly unhinged and fearful of his own liability, attempted to obstruct the Mueller investigation at every turn.” McGahn, Nadler asserted, was “clearly distressed” by Trump’s repeated refusal to heed his legal advice and “shed new light on several troubling events.”
He did not elaborate, and a transcript of the interview is not expected to be made public before next week. McGahn did not address the media.
The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio denounced Friday’s session as “re-litigating the Mueller report” and a waste of time. Panel member Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who like Jordan is among Trump’s most outspoken supporters in Congress, added: “We’ve learned nothing new.”
“The expectation was that Don McGahn would be some sort of essential witness bringing new information worthy of years of litigation and countless taxpayer dollars spent on this endeavor,” Gaetz told reporters. “Mr. McGahn is unable to identify anything unlawful on the part of the president or any other member of the president’s administration.”
The committee first asked to interview McGahn in 2019, after the release of Mueller’s report. McGahn was the most-cited witness in that document, explaining how Trump had tried to have Mueller fired and then asked aides to lie about it.
Democrats and many legal scholars have seized on McGahn’s disclosures to Mueller as evidence of possible obstruction of justice, a crime. The Trump administration sought to keep McGahn muzzled, claiming his proximity to the president granted him “absolute immunity” from congressional summons.
Lawmakers departing Friday’s session offered little insight about the substance of McGahn’s testimony, but Democrats defended the exercise, saying his in-person appearance served to amplify details contained in Mueller’s report.
“His words and his demeanor brought those things to life,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said after the interview, describing how McGahn detailed the “pressure” he was under from Trump. It will be more difficult for the public to glean such nuance, however, as only a transcript of the testimony will be released.
A legal battle over the enforcement of Congress’s subpoena for McGahn’s testimony played out in federal court for two years before the Democratic-controlled House reached a deal with the Biden administration to bring in McGahn for Friday’s transcribed interview.
But that bargain, struck last month, has been widely criticized as a retreat by the House, which abandoned its legal fight before it reached the Supreme Court and never secured a definitive ruling that it is mandatory to obey a congressional subpoena — which might have helped avoid similar conflicts in the future.
Last year, House Democrats unveiled legislation to accelerate the timelines under which the courts consider cases involving congressional subpoenas, as part of a broader package of reforms to better prevent presidential abuses of power. That legislation is currently the subject of discussions with the White House, and is expected to be revisited in the House.
“Congress has to be respected with its subpoena and oversight responsibilities … Today we asserted that right,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, told reporters Friday, defending Democrats’ insistence on interviewing McGahn.
Nadler, in his written statement, called the interview a “great victory for congressional oversight” but decried the excessive wait. “The Trump era,” he said, “has taught us that Congress can no longer depend on good faith cooperation with our committees.”