Top Trump lawyer gives Mueller cov­eted de­tails

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY MICHAEL S. SCH­MIDT AND MAG­GIE HABER­MAN

The White House coun­sel, Don McGahn, has co­op­er­ated ex­ten­sively in the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion, shar­ing de­tailed ac­counts about the episodes at the heart of the in­quiry into whether Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ob­structed jus­tice, in­clud­ing some that in­ves­ti­ga­tors would not have learned of other­wise, ac­cord­ing to a dozen cur­rent and for­mer White House of­fi­cials and oth­ers briefed on the mat­ter.

In at least three vol­un­tary in­ter­views with in­ves­ti­ga­tors that to­taled 30 hours dur­ing the past nine months, McGahn de­scribed the pres­i­dent’s furor to­ward the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the ways in which he urged McGahn to re­spond to it. He provided the in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­am­in­ing whether Trump ob­structed jus­tice a clear view of the pres­i­dent’s most in­ti­mate mo­ments with his lawyer.

Among them were Trump’s com­ments and ac­tions dur­ing the fir­ing of for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey and Trump’s ob­ses­sion with putting a loy­al­ist in charge of the in­quiry, in­clud­ing his re­peated urg­ing of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions to claim over­sight of it. McGahn was also cen­trally in­volved in Trump’s at­tempts to fire the spe­cial coun­sel, Robert Mueller, which in­ves­ti­ga­tors might not have dis­cov­ered with­out him.

For a lawyer to share so much with in­ves­ti­ga­tors scru­ti­niz­ing his client is un­usual. Lawyers are rarely so open with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, not only be­cause they are ad­vo­cat­ing on be­half of their clients but also be­cause their con­ver­sa­tions with clients are po­ten­tially shielded by at­tor­ney-client priv­i­lege, and in the case of pres­i­dents, ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege.

“A pros­e­cu­tor would kill for that,” said Solomon Wisen­berg, a deputy in­de­pen­dent coun­sel in the White­wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which did not have the same level of co­op­er­a­tion from Pres­i­dent Bill Clin- ton’s lawyers. “Oh my God, it would have been phe­nom­e­nally help­ful to us. It would have been like hav­ing the keys to the king­dom.”

McGahn’s co­op­er­a­tion be­gan in part as a re­sult of a de­ci­sion by Trump’s first team of crim­i­nal lawyers to col­lab­o­rate fully with Mueller. The pres­i­dent’s lawyers have ex­plained that they be­lieved their client had noth­ing to hide and that they could bring the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to an end quickly.

McGahn and his lawyer, Wil­liam Burck, could not un­der­stand why Trump was so will­ing to al­low McGahn to speak freely to the spe­cial coun­sel and feared Trump was set­ting up McGahn to take the blame for any pos­si­ble il­le­gal acts of ob­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple close to him. So he and Burck de­vised their own strat­egy to do as much as pos­si­ble to co­op­er­ate with Mueller to demon­strate that McGahn did noth­ing wrong.

It is not clear that Trump ap­pre­ci­ates the ex­tent to which McGahn has co­op­er­ated with the spe­cial coun­sel. The pres­i­dent wrongly be­lieved that McGahn would act as a per­sonal lawyer would for clients and solely de­fend his in­ter­ests to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with knowl­edge of his think­ing.

In fact, McGahn laid out how Trump tried to en­sure con­trol of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, giv­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors a mix of in­for­ma­tion both po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing and fa­vor­able to the pres­i­dent. McGahn cau­tioned to in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he never saw Trump go be­yond his le­gal au­thor­i­ties, though the lim­its of ex­ec­u­tive power are murky.

McGahn’s role as a co­op­er­at­ing wit­ness fur­ther strains his al­ready com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent. Though Trump has fought with McGahn as much as with any of his top aides, White House ad­vis­ers have said, both men have ben­e­fited sig­nif­i­cantly from their part­ner­ship.

McGahn has over­seen two of Trump’s sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ments – stock­ing the fed­eral courts and cut­ting govern­ment reg­u­la­tions – and be­come a cham­pion of con­ser­va­tives in the process.

But the two rarely speak one-on-one – White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and other ad­vis­ers are usu­ally present for their meet­ings – and Trump has ques­tioned McGahn’s loy­alty. In turn, Trump’s be­hav­ior has so ex­as­per­ated McGahn that he has called the pres­i­dent “King Kong” be­hind his back, to con­note his vol­canic anger, peo­ple close to McGahn said.

This ac­count was based on in­ter­views with cur­rent and for­mer White House of­fi­cials and oth­ers who have spo­ken to both men, all of whom re­quested anonymity to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Through Burck, McGahn de­clined to com­ment. A spokesman for the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice also de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Asked for com­ment, the White House sought to quell the sense of ten­sion.

“The pres­i­dent and Don have a great re­la­tion­ship,” the White House press sec­re­tary, Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, said in a state­ment. “He ap­pre­ci­ates all the hard work he’s done, par­tic­u­larly his help and ex­per­tise with the judges, and the Supreme Court” nom­i­nees.

McGahn’s route from top White House lawyer to a cen­tral wit­ness in the ob­struc­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the pres­i­dent be­gan around the time Mueller took over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether any Trump as­so­ciates con­spired with Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

When Mueller was ap­pointed in May 2017, the lawyers sur­round­ing the pres­i­dent re­aligned them­selves. McGahn and other White House lawyers stopped deal­ing on a day-to-day ba­sis with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, as they re­al­ized they were po­ten­tial wit­nesses in an ob­struc­tion case.

In the fol­low­ing weeks, Trump as­sem­bled a per­sonal le­gal team to de­fend him. He wanted to take on Mueller di­rectly, at­tack­ing his cred­i­bil­ity and im­ped­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

ERIN SCHAFF NYT

Don McGahn, the White House coun­sel, is co­op­er­at­ing with the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ob­structed jus­tice.

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