- White House lawyer Don McGahn, who reportedly threatened to resign rather than carry out President Donald Trump’s order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June, has been involved in several of Trump’s efforts to control the Russia probe.
- McGahn has acted as a kind of moderating influence on Trump, and has emerged as a person of interest for Mueller due to his knowledge of the president’s motivations in several high-profile scandals.
- If Trump tries to fire Mueller again, there will likely be no one on his staff willing to follow through on the order.
White House lawyer Don McGahn’s refusal to carry out President Donald Trump’s order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June wasn’t the first time he’s been involved in the president’s reported efforts to control the Russia investigation.
McGahn, who also served as Trump’s counsel during the 2016 campaign, has been at Trump’s side since the start of the Russia investigation, first under the leadership of former FBI Director James Comey and then under Mueller. New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, who co-authored the Times’s story on Trump’s attempt to fire Mueller, told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that McGahn’s role hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
“I think that Don McGahn is a central figure in this that the American public may not appreciate,” Schmidt said on Thursday. “He’s a central player in all these things and it’s a remarkable part of the story that gives us insight into how the president tried to use lawyers in ways he was apparently sort of afraid to do himself.”
In the days before Trump fired Comey in May, McGahn was the one responsible for blocking the letter drafted by Trump and his policy adviser Stephen Miller that laid out their rationale for Comey’s termination. Instead, he and other officials including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein worked to draft a new letter that argued that Comey’s handling of the investigation into 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton disqualified him from serving as FBI director.
McGahn’s staff also reportedly lied to Trump about his power over Comey to keep him from taking any drastic actions.
“McGahn’s deputies basically misled the president to tell him that he didn’t have authority to fire the FBI director without cause because they were afraid of what the president would do,” Schmidt told Maddow. “Seems like time and time again there’s examples of the president’s aides or lawyers trying to stop him from doing things that they believe will hurt him or hurt the presidency.”
Prior to his role in moderating the administration’s reasoning for firing Comey, McGahn lobbied Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Trump’s request in order to convince him to refrain from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. McGahn was apparently unaware that Sessions had already consulted with other attorneys in the Department of Justice and decided to go forward with his recusal, but after being told of this, he stopped communicating with Sessions on the matter.
McGahn has moderated Trump’s impulses
Now that reports have emerged about McGahn’s role in blocking Trump from firing Mueller in June, legal experts say there is reason to believe that Trump’s efforts to further curtail the Russia investigation will be met with further resistance.
“In the event that Trump changes his mind and in the future decides to order Mueller’s dismissal, it’s unclear whether he could find anyone at the Justice Department willing to pull the trigger,” Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal law, said.
McGahn’s closeness to each of these events has made him a person of interest in the Mueller investigation, and the White House lawyer was questioned by Mueller’s team in early December, just hours before former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI.
Defense lawyer and federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti has noted that McGahn’s conversations with Trump were exempt from attorney-client privilege because both parties in the relationship are government employees, so it is likely that Mueller asked McGahn about Trump’s intent in many of the events McGahn was involved in.
So while McGahn was present and active in many instances where Trump looked like he might attempting to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation, he has, more often than not, acted as a check on Trump’s heavy-handed impulses. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to do so once Trump is called before Mueller’s probe in the next several weeks.
Sonam Sheth contributed reporting to this article.