WASHINGTON — Donald McGahn, who served as White House counsel to President Donald Trump, has told lawmakers that episodes involving him in the Russia report by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, were accurate — including one Trump has denied in which the president pressed him to get the Justice Department to remove Mueller.
A 241-page transcript of McGahn’s closed-door testimony from last week, released on Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, contained no major revelations. But it opened a window on McGahn’s struggles to serve as the top lawyer in a chaotic White House, under a president who often pushed the limits of appropriate behavior.
“They don’t teach you this in law school,” McGahn said of one episode he witnessed in which Trump was trying to get his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, to resign because he had recused himself from the Russia investigation.
McGahn was a major witness to many of the episodes outlined in the second volume of the Mueller report, which focused on actions Trump took to obstruct the investigation. After then-Attorney General William Barr — who said none of those episodes amounted to a chargeable crime — released most of the report in 2019, Democrats subpoenaed McGahn, hoping for a dramatic televised hearing.
But the Trump Justice Department fought to block the subpoena, leading to a protracted and complex court battle. It came to an end when the Biden Justice Department struck a deal with House Democrats to permit McGahn to testify, but under strict limits: It would take place in private, and he could only be asked about information in the public portions of the Mueller report.
While the testimony was belated and limited, the chairperson of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., portrayed it as important.
“Mr. McGahn provided the committee with substantial new information,” Nadler said in a statement accompanying the transcript release. He added, “All told, Mr. McGahn’s testimony gives us a fresh look at how dangerously close President Trump brought us to, in Mr. McGahn’s words, the ‘point of no return.’”
McGahn used that phrase when a staff lawyer for House Democrats grilled him at length about Trump’s efforts to get him to tell the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod Rosenstein, to remove Mueller over a dubious claim that the special counsel had a conflict of interest — which McGahn refused to do, believing it could “cause this to spiral out of control.”
After Trump called him at home on a Saturday in 2017 to pressure him again to tell Rosenstein to oust Mueller, for example, McGahn testified, he was deeply concerned.
“After I got off the phone with the president, how did I feel?” he said. “Oof. Frustrated, perturbed, trapped. Many emotions.”
Fearing that conveying the directive might instead prompt Rosenstein to resign and touch off a crisis akin to President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal, McGahn instead prepared to resign if Trump did not relent. He told several colleagues at the White House about his intention, although not Trump himself. But the crisis instead blew over for a time.
In his testimony, McGahn acknowledged that he was afraid that if Trump removed Mueller or otherwise interfered with the investigation, the action would be used to accuse the president of obstruction of justice. But he was also careful to frame his concerns as being about public relations, without acknowledging that any legal lines were ever crossed.
“It didn’t mean the president was meddling, but certainly it would be easily made to look that way,” McGahn said.
The internal furor over Trump’s previous attempt to oust Mueller reignited in January 2018, when The New York Times and then The Washington Post reported on the encounter.
Trump was enraged and pushed McGahn to make a statement denying that the episode had happened, but he refused to do so — because, he said, The Times story was substantially accurate. (McGahn said that The Post’s follow-up to The Times story was clearer on one issue — whether he had conveyed his threat directly to Trump — because McGahn had been a source for The Post in order to explain that nuance.)
McGahn had by then also already told Mueller’s team about the event — Trump had ordered him to cooperate with the special counsel — and he feared that Mueller would consider charging him with making a false statement to law enforcement officials if he contradicted his account.
McGahn also called Trump’s claim that he never even suggested firing Mueller “disappointing,” because Trump “certainly entertained the idea. Certainly seemed to ask a number of people about it. Certainly had a number of conversations with me about something along those lines.”
The fight over whether McGahn would falsely say that Trump had never asked him to have the special counsel removed by Rosenstein also led to a vivid moment in the Mueller report where Trump chastised McGahn for keeping notes of their conversations, saying it was not something that Roy Cohn — a notorious lawyer who was disbarred for unethical conduct, but who Trump admired — would have done. Cohn died in 1986.
“I didn’t really respond,” McGahn said. “I’ve made my point. And this was not the first time that Roy Cohn has sort of — the ghost of Roy had come into the Oval Office, so it didn’t seem to be a point worth responding to and, you know, he’s the president, he gets the last word.”