President Donald Trump denied again Friday he had instructed his former White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller, contradicting the redacted report Mueller released last week and furthering a battle with Democrats over whether his former lawyer, Don McGahn, should testify before Congress.
It comes as Trump scales up his attacks on Mueller and the report he produced – broadsides and claims that some view as damaging to an overall legal strategy of asserting executive privilege to prevent key aides from appearing before Congress.
Some West Wing officials have conceded that the President’s tweets disputing McGahn’s account are not helpful to their case, and fear it could make it more difficult to assert privilege over a conversation that Trump denies occurred.
Mueller’s report portrays the President as consumed by the Russia probe and intent on short-circuiting it. Those portrayals have led Democrats on Capitol Hill to issue their own requests for some of the report’s key players, including McGahn. But the White House has dug in, refusing to cooperate with the requests and disallowing some aides from appearing before congressional panels.
In the case of McGahn, lawmakers are keen to know what specifically Trump asked in his conversations about the special counsel. In his report, Mueller wrote Trump “called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed.”
But Trump has long disputed that, including to McGahn himself in an episode recounted in detail in the Mueller report. Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn, Trump insisted he would have been within his rights to dismiss Mueller, but that history told him to hold off.
“We had the absolute right. I’m a student of history. I see what you get when you fire people, and it’s not good,” Trump said. Trump’s own decision to fire FBI Director James Comey is part of what prompted the investigation into whether he obstructed justice.
The episode involving McGahn formed a key section of the Mueller report that examined areas that could have constituted obstruction of justice. Ultimately, Mueller did not render a conclusion on whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction, saying he was partly motivated by a Justice Department opinion that a president cannot be indicted.
At the same time, Mueller made clear he was not exonerating the President, leading some Democrats to push to investigate the matter further in their own oversight capacity. They have demanded documents and testimony that might shed light on the matter.
Trump has instructed aides to refuse those requests and may seek to prevent McGahn from complying with a subpoena issued by the House Judiciary Committee that demands his cooperation in its probe into potential obstruction of justice.
A source familiar with the discussion said the White House could attempt to assert executive privilege over specific aspects if McGahn testifies, but noted that discussions are not that far along yet and added that other measures are still being considered.
That effort could be complicated, however, since the President did not exert executive privilege when the Mueller report was released, including the accounts McGahn provided of the alleged firing attempt.
And it could be made more difficult by Trump’s comments disputing the conversation with McGahn about firing Mueller had ever happened.
Legally fine, some say
Some close to the President deny he’s muddying his legal options.
“The President is allowed to express his opinions on Twitter without affecting his rights and privileges,” one source told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
And a Trump legal team source told Acosta the President is in “no legal jeopardy” when he offers his opinion on the Mueller probe. As for legal exposure for the President in the investigation, the source said “it’s done.”
The source added that the blocking of testimony on the Hill is more an issue for the White House counsel and less of an issue for the outside legal team. But this source said exerting privilege is a “time honored tradition” in Washington.
In his comments on Friday, Trump flashed irritation at his former counsel, suggesting the 30-plus hours of testimony he provided to Mueller’s office was overkill.
“I think McGahn was in there for 30 hours,” Trump said. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”
Later, Trump insisted his administration was a portrait of transparency, including its decision to allow officials to speak with the special counsel and provide documents to investigators.
Trump said after that effort, continuing requests by Democrats were a bridge too far.
“I get out the first day, they’re saying lets do it again,” he said. “I said that’s enough. We have to run a country.”