On Friday morning, Donald Trump took to Twitter to attack the Mueller report – and, not-so-subtly – his former White House counsel Don McGahn.
“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue,” Trump tweeted. “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed.”
Trump appears to be referring to elements of the Mueller report which detail the President telling McGahn to have the special counsel removed in June 2017 and then, when that news was eventually reported, urging McGahn to deny it and asking him why he was taking notes in their meetings and talking to Mueller.
Here’s the delicious irony of Trump attacking his former top lawyer: McGahn’s refusal to heed the President’s directive to fire Mueller – or to tell the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller – very well may have saved Trump’s presidency.
And, no, I am not exaggerating.
Let’s go through this step-by-step – starting with how Mueller described Trump’s interaction with McGahn over the special counsel. Here’s the relevant passage (bolding is mine):
“On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”
The “Saturday Night Massacre” refers to then-President Richard Nixon’s order – in October 1973 amid the Watergate probe – that Attorney General Elliot Richardson fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order, as did deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork, yes, that Robert Bork, then fired Cox.
That moment was seen as the beginning of the end for Nixon – a sign that as the walls of the Watergate investigation were closing in, he was panicking. (The spark for Cox’s removal was that he had requested Nixon turn over tapes of private White House conversations – and Nixon refused.)
Later in the Mueller report comes this episode when, following The New York Times report in January 2018 that Trump had ordered McGahn to remove Mueller, the President tries to force McGahn into a denial. Here’s that (and again, bolding is mine):
“The President then met with McGahn in the Oval Office and again pressured him to deny the reports. In the same meeting, the President also asked McGahn why he had told the Special Counsel about the President’s effort to remove the Special Counsel and why McGahn took notes of his conversations with the President. McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle.”
McGahn’s two moments of refusal to accede to Trump’s wishes are massive pivot points in the presidency. If McGahn had made different decisions than he did – especially on that day in June 2017 –Trump’s time in the White House might be looking very, very different today.
Consider what would have happened if McGahn had followed Trump’s orders almost two years ago. Mueller would have been fired – either by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or someone beneath him if he had refused, and either resigned or been fired for refusing. That removal would have set off a political cataclysm, with Democrats insisting that Trump was abusing executive power to protect himself and even some Republicans, who to that point had largely stayed in line behind Trump, breaking free at what would have looked like a very clear power play by the chief executive.
And, in truth, the removal of Mueller – and the possible resignation of Rosenstein – likely wouldn’t have changed all that much, to start. Another special counsel would almost certainly have been named; it would have been hard for the Justice Department not to do so if Trump had fired the two people leading the investigation in just a few months’ time (Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey).
The investigation would have continued, but with the stain of Trump’s firing of Mueller hanging over it. And you can be sure that when Democrats retook control of the House in the 2018 midterms, the push for impeachment proceedings would have begun. It’s not clear to me that Senate Republicans would have, ultimately, gone along with the impeachment but it would have had a hell of a lot better chance than it does right now.
Overarching all of this is the fact that, according to Mueller, neither Trump – nor anyone in his inner circle – had committed the underlying crime of colluding with the Russians to help him win the 2016 election. Given that, it’s insane to think Trump wanted McGahn to fire Mueller – since that is literally the most guilty-looking thing you could possibly do.
Trump may be mad that McGahn talked so much to the special counsel and took “so-called ‘notes’” of their conversations. But what the President should be doing is thanking his lucky stars that McGahn saw what firing Mueller might do to Trump’s presidency – i.e. destroy it – and decided not to follow his boss’ orders.
If he had, Trump’s presidency would look very different today.