Former White House attorney Don McGahn refused to follow then-President Donald Trump’s push for special counsel Robert Mueller’s removal out of fear the situation could “spiral out of control,” he told a House panel.
In a transcript of an interview that Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee had been seeking to conduct for two years, McGahn acknowledged that Trump had wanted him to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller had conflicts of interest and should be removed from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“This seemed to be an inflection point. It was time to hit the brakes and not make a phone call to Rod to raise this issue that the president had continued to raise with me. It seemed to me that it’d be easier for me to not make the call and take whatever heat or fallout there would be than to cause, potentially, a chain reaction that I think would not be in the best interest of the president,” McGahn said.
“If I conveyed the tone that I heard on the phone from the president to Rod, Rod could do who knows what? He could resign himself. Who knows what Rod would do?” McGahn added a short time later.
McGahn confirmed other information from Mueller’s report as well, including how upset Trump was when he found out that Mueller had been named special counsel.
Mueller’s report quoted Trump as saying, “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”
McGahn said Trump didn’t seem mad — then. “I don’t think at this point it would be considered anger. I think he — I think he felt like, from my perception, that this was bad news,” McGahn said.
He also recalled Trump telling then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he should resign for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia probe.
“You know, it’s not the sort of thing that happens every day. It’s not the sort of thing one would anticipate happening,” he said, and a “rather historic potential moment here, where the president is having a showdown with his attorney general. That doesn’t happen every day. They don’t teach you this in law school.”
Mueller had cited McGahn’s testimony to his investigators numerous times in his report as evidence of possible obstruction. While Mueller opted not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice, he laid out efforts by the president to tamper with witnesses and affect the investigation.
House Judiciary Democrats subpoenaed McGahn to testify as part of their impeachment probe, but the Trump White House and Justice Department fought to block McGahn’s testimony.
The two sides reached a deal last month for McGahn to testify behind closed doors about incidents referred to in Mueller’s report.
House Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said McGahn provided “firsthand accounts of President Trump’s increasingly out of control behavior, and insight into concerns that the former president’s conduct could expose both Trump and McGahn to criminal liability.”
“All told, Mr. McGahn’s testimony gives us a fresh look at how dangerously close President Trump brought us to, in Mr. McGahn’s words, the ‘point of no return,’” Nadler said.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, noted that McGahn had also testified that Trump had told him to cooperate with Mueller’s investigators, and that Trump never actually removed Mueller.
“Don McGahn testified he observed no collusion with Russia, no obstruction of justice, and no criminal activity during his time as White House counsel,” Jordan said.
Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.