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House Judiciary releases McGahn testimony on Trump

The Hill logo The Hill 6/10/2021 Rebecca Beitsch,Harper Neidig and Morgan Chalfant
Don McGahn wearing a suit and tie: House Judiciary releases McGahn testimony on Trump © Greg Nash House Judiciary releases McGahn testimony on Trump

Former White House counsel Don McGahn confirmed to congressional investigators a key account in ex-special counsel Robert Mueller's report that former President Trump directed him to try to get Mueller removed, according to a transcript of his closed-door testimony released Wednesday.

The 241-page transcript follows a long fought-for interview the House Judiciary Committee finally secured with McGahn on Friday after the Trump White House challenged a subpoena seeking his testimony during Trump's first impeachment investigation. The transcript shows that the interview yielded little new information but confirmed some of the details of Mueller's lengthy report on his 22-month investigation that concluded in March 2018 and with which McGahn cooperated.

Trump has persistently denied any effort to fire Mueller amid the long inquiry, which probed allegations that members of Trump's team had colluded with Russian figures during his 2016 presidential campaign. Yet in Friday's interview, McGahn directly disputed Trump's claims, repeatedly laying out Trump's consideration of firing Mueller.

"Well, you know, he 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," McGahn told lawmakers.

"So, you know, it was disappointing that he'd come out and say, oh, it was never on the table when, certainly, at least the conflict of interest issue and whether that would preclude Mueller from being special counsel, certainly was discussed," he added.

McGahn noted Trump's frequent allegations that Mueller had conflicts of interest that should have disqualified him from the job, pointing to one phone call with Trump in particular.

"He wanted me to call [former Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein and inform Rod that he had conflicts. And, in the President's view, Mueller shouldn't be able to serve as special counsel because of these conflicts," he said.

McGahn called the potential dismissal of Mueller a "point of no return."

"If the Acting Attorney General received what he thought was a direction from the counsel to the President to remove a special counsel, he would either have to remove the special counsel or resign. We are still talking about the 'Saturday Night Massacre' decades and decades later," he told lawmakers, referring to an infamous purge of administration officials during former President Nixon's Watergate scandal.

"What I was not going to do is cause any sort of chain reaction that would cause this to spiral out of control in a way that wasn't in the best interests ... of my client, which was the President," he added.

The transcript also shows McGahn's own fears of being implicated in the investigation, as Trump was pressuring him to release a statement saying Trump had not sought to pressure Rosenstein to remove Mueller.

McGahn said that statement "would not have been accurate" and that given Mueller's track record for going after those who had made false statements, "I would have probably been next."

"He had already publicly made clear he was going after various people for that, and that certainly is one that would weigh on anybody's mind," he said.

McGahn's testimony followed a two-year legal battle.

House Democrats had subpoenaed McGahn in April 2019, seeking his insights into allegations that members of Trump's team had colluded with Russian figures during his 2016 presidential campaign - a topic that became the subject of a 22-month investigation by Mueller.

At the time, Democrats hoped McGahn's testimony could shed public light on Trump's efforts to undermine the special counsel investigation and build momentum for impeachment. Democrats went on to impeach Trump twice - but not for his actions related to the Mueller probe.

The Trump White House directed McGahn to defy the subpoena as part of its broad stonewalling of Democratic investigations. The House sued to force McGahn's testimony, leading to a protracted court battle that ended last month when the two sides struck an agreement for the former White House counsel to testify before the House Judiciary Committee behind closed doors.

But the Biden administration's Justice Department has not been fully forthcoming in the face of efforts to uncover information about its predecessor's conduct during the Mueller saga. The department is currently appealing a court order to release a key March 2019 legal memo advising then-Attorney General William Barr that Trump's conduct described in the Mueller report did not support obstruction of justice charges against the president.

According to the transcript, McGahn told lawmakers that he wasn't surprised that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel advised against obstruction charges when asked about the memo, saying that he had not personally been involved in any criminal wrongdoing.

"Well, you know, I wasn't privy to everything going on, so I don't know if I could be surprised one way or the other," he said. "I know just what I know. And, you know, if I had seen what I had thought was a crime being committed, I would have not been a part of that. So, at least from my point of view, it wasn't a surprise, but I didn't know what I didn't know."

The two Judiciary Committee Republicans present during Friday's testimony, Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.), are among Trump's staunchest congressional allies. They're pointing to McGahn's remarks as vindication for what they've said all along: that Trump did nothing wrong during his campaign.

Pressed by Republicans, McGahn declined to characterize the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt," as Trump's allies maintain. But he made clear that Trump instructed him to cooperate fully with the probe - an assertion Republicans say is evidence that Trump had nothing to hide.

"I know the President told me to cooperate," McGahn testified. "I went over, did the best I could. That's what I know."

Still, following the testimony and again on Wednesday, Republicans dismissed the need for McGahn's testimony.

"If there is any clear conclusion from the interview, it is that the Democrats over promised when it came to McGahn's testimony," Judiciary Republicans said in a statement.

Mike Lillis contributed.

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