Top Trump lawyer gives Mueller coveted details
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.
Don McGahn, the White House counsel, is cooperating with the special counsel investigation into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.