Share story

President Donald Trump’s lawyers do not know just how much the White House counsel, Don McGahn, told the special counsel’s investigators during months of interviews, a lapse that has contributed to a growing recognition that an early strategy of full cooperation with the inquiry was a potentially damaging mistake.

The president’s lawyers said Sunday that they were confident that McGahn had said nothing injurious to the president during the 30 hours of interviews. But McGahn’s lawyer has offered only a limited accounting of what McGahn told the investigators, according to two people close to the president.

That has prompted concern among Trump’s advisers that McGahn’s statements could help serve as a key component for a damning report by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, which the Justice Department could send to Congress, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Trump’s lawyers realized Saturday that they had not been provided a full accounting after The New York Times published an article describing McGahn’s extensive cooperation with Mueller’s office. After McGahn was initially interviewed by the special counsel’s office in November, Trump’s lawyers never asked for a complete description of what McGahn had said, according to a person close to the president.

McGahn’s lawyer, William A. Burck, gave the president’s lawyers a short overview of the interview but few details, and he did not inform them of what McGahn said in subsequent interactions with the investigators, according to a person close to Trump. McGahn and Burck feared that Trump was setting up McGahn to take the blame for any possible wrongdoing, so they embraced the opening to cooperate fully with Mueller in an effort to demonstrate that McGahn had done nothing wrong.

On Sunday, Trump’s lead lawyer dealing with the special counsel, Rudy Giuliani, appeared to acknowledge that he had only a partial understanding of what McGahn had revealed. Giuliani said his knowledge was secondhand, given to him by a former Trump lawyer, John Dowd, who was one of the primary forces behind the initial strategy of full cooperation.

“I’ll use his words rather than mine, that McGahn was a strong witness for the president, so I don’t need to know much more about that,” Giuliani said of Dowd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But McGahn, who as White House counsel is not the president’s personal lawyer, has repeatedly made clear to the president that his role is as a protector of the presidency, not of Trump personally.

Legal experts and former White House counsels said the president’s lawyers had been careless in not asking McGahn what he had planned to tell Mueller’s prosecutors. The experts said Trump’s lawyers had the right to know the full extent of what McGahn was going to say.

Robert F. Bauer, a White House counsel under President Barack Obama, said McGahn’s lawyer may have taken the most prudent course for his client by not addressing “each and every detail about the questions that were specifically asked and the specific answers given.”

In its article, The Times said McGahn had shared detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice in the Russia inquiry. Some of the episodes — like Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller last summer — would not have been revealed to investigators without McGahn’s help.

The article set off a scramble Saturday among Trump’s lawyers and advisers. The president, sequestered at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, solicited opinions from a small group of advisers on the possible repercussions from the article. The president ordered Giuliani to tell reporters that the article was wrong, but Giuliani did not go that far in his television appearances.

The report by The Times also reignited a debate about whether Trump had been given bad advice by his former lawyers Dowd and Ty Cobb to allow full cooperation with Mueller’s team, including by waiving attorney-client privilege. Dowd and Cobb believed that the cooperation would help prove that the president had done nothing wrong and bring a swifter end to the investigation.

But the strategy “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,” Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney and a close ally of Trump, said on ABC News’ “This Week.”

“It’s bad legal advice, bad lawyering, and this is a result of it,” Christie added.

Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who had argued last summer against cooperating with Mueller, said, “This was a reckless and dangerously naive strategy, and I’ve vocally said that since the time I left the White House, and I’ve said it to the president.”

The Times reported that McGahn, over at least three interviews, laid out how Trump had tried to ensure control of the special counsel investigation. McGahn gave a mix of damaging and favorable information about the president, but he said Trump did not go beyond his legal authorities as president.

Although Trump’s lawyers have little idea what McGahn told investigators, they said Saturday and Sunday that McGahn had helped the president.

In an email to members of Trump’s legal team and other associates, which was obtained by The Times, Dowd said he had made the right choice in urging cooperation.

“We protected President by not asserting attorney-client privilege,” Dowd wrote. He added that, had the lawyers forced the Mueller team to subpoena witnesses, they would have lost the ability to exert privilege over witnesses and documents.

Still, Trump was rattled by the Times report, according to people familiar with his thinking. The president, who is said to be obsessed with the role that John W. Dean, the White House counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, played as an informant during Watergate, was jolted by the notion that he did not know what McGahn had shared.

Trump lashed out about the report on Twitter, saying that The Times had falsely insinuated that McGahn had “turned” on him.

Last fall, McGahn believed that he was being set up to be blamed for any wrongdoing by the president in part because of an article published in The Times in September, which described a conversation that a reporter had overheard between Dowd and Cobb.

In the conversation — which occurred over lunch at a table on the sidewalk outside the Washington steakhouse BLT — Cobb discussed the White House’s production of documents to Mueller’s office. Cobb talked about how McGahn was opposed to cooperation and had documents locked in his safe.

After the account of the lunch conversation was published, McGahn became convinced that Cobb believed that he was hiding documents. Concerned that he would be blamed, he decided to try to demonstrate to Mueller that he and other White House lawyers had done nothing wrong.

As Trump’s lawyers have shifted to a more antagonistic approach toward Mueller, it has seemed increasingly unlikely that Trump will sit for a voluntary interview. On “Meet the Press,” Giuliani repeated his fear of a “perjury trap.”

“It’s somebody’s version of the truth, not the truth,” Giuliani said of any statements by the president in such an interview.

“Truth is truth,” the show’s host, Chuck Todd, answered.

“No, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani replied. “Truth isn’t truth.”