White House counsel Donald McGahn II, has been quietly cooperating "extensively" with special counsel Robert Mueller in his probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to an explosive New York Times report published Saturday afternoon.
Sources told the Times that McGahn has had at least three voluntary interviews with Mueller's team totaling 30 hours, in which he discussed accounts of multiple episodes at the center of Mueller's probe into whether President Trump obstructed justice, as well as the president’s furor toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged McGahn to respond to it.
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.
Among the episodes McGahn reprotedly discussed with investigators is Trump’s firing last year of former FBI Director James Comey and the president's repeated urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to claim oversight of the special counsel despite his recusal from Russia probes. McGahn was also centrally involved in Trump’s attempts to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, himself which investigators might not have discovered without him.
Commenting on the report, Solomon L. Wisenberg, a deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation "which did not have the same level of cooperation from President Bill Clinton’s lawyers", said that "a prosecutor would kill for that. Oh my God, it would have been phenomenally helpful to us. It would have been like having the keys to the kingdom.”
McGahn began cooperating with Mueller's team last year after Trump’s first round of personal lawyers decided to give investigators as much information as possible, believing the president had nothing to hide.
Trump assembled a personal legal team to defend him. He wanted to take on Mr. Mueller directly, attacking his credibility and impeding investigators. But two of his newly hired lawyers, John M. Dowd and Ty Cobb, have said they took Mr. Trump at his word that he did nothing wrong and sold him on an open-book strategy. As long as Mr. Trump and the White House cooperated with Mr. Mueller, they told him, they could bring an end to the investigation within months.
Mr. McGahn, who had objected to Mr. Cobb’s hiring, was dubious, according to people he spoke to around that time. As White House counsel, not a personal lawyer, he viewed his role as protector of the presidency, not of Mr. Trump. Allowing a special counsel to root around the West Wing could set a precedent harmful to future administrations.
However, McGahn eventually became concerned over his growing exposure in the investigation and began to suspect the president was setting him up to take the fall for any alleged obstruction of justice.
McGahn and his own lawyer, William Burck, then decided for the White House counsel to do as much on his own to cooperate with Mueller. According to the NYT, McGahn was worried that Mr. Trump would ultimately blame him in the inquiry; the lawyer then told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, who was imprisoned in the Watergate scandal.
The NYT also reports that Trump's personal lawyers could have exercised attorney-client privilege to know what McGahn planned to tell investigators, but the president's lawyers did not go through that process.
The times adds that "it is not clear that Mr. Trump appreciates the extent to which Mr. McGahn has cooperated with the special counsel", meaning that Trump will likely be quite angry once again by what he perceives as betrayal by one more person close to him. The reason for that is that the president "wrongly believed that Mr. McGahn would act as a personal lawyer would for clients and solely defend his interests to investigators"
McGahn reportedly laid out how Mr. Trump tried to control the investigation, giving investigators a mix of information both potentially damaging and favorable to the president. Of note, McGahn cautioned to investigators that he never saw Trump overstep his legal authorities.
Whether McGahn reveals any groundbreaking information remains unknown. The Times report, however, does underscore the sprawling nature and depth of Mueller's probe, which has moved to scrutinize people closer to Trump's inner circle in recent months amid calls from Trump's personal legal team for it to wrap up before the November midterm elections.
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.
For the real story keep an eye on Trump's tweet: any imminent attacks on McGahn will not only indicate how much of a surprise today's report is, but lead to further allegations that Trump is trying to further obstruct Mueller's investigation.
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