Former Trump White House Counsel Don McGahn testified Friday before a small group of House Judiciary Committee members about former President Donald Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation, in a closed-door interview that was the culmination of a two-year court fight Democrats waged against the Trump administration.
The interview was poised to have McGahn put on record with Congress about some of the most pivotal moments of the Trump presidency, such as when Trump directed McGahn to fire then-special counsel Robert Mueller and McGahn refused. These incidents were documented in Mueller’s final report, then were nearly eclipsed from public discussion during inter-branch power struggles in 2019 and 2020.
The interview was held behind closed doors but a transcript will be released in the following days, according to the agreement that was reached. McGahn was interviewed by both Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in alternating rounds.
During the interview, McGahn said the Mueller report accurately documented what he had told the criminal investigators years ago, and he confirmed to the committee that what he said to Mueller was true, according to a person connected to McGahn.
The interview had a few mildly heated moments. But overall, it was in line with what the Justice Department and House had agreed to question McGahn about, and McGahn retold what he had described for Mueller.
After the hearing, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said in a statement that McGahn “was clearly distressed by President Trump’s refusal to follow his legal advice, again and again, and he shed new light on several troubling events today.”
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania said on CNN’s “The Lead” that she believes new information came out of McGahn’s testimony and that the interview was a good use of the committee’s time even though it had come years after the initial request was made.
“We have a constitutional authority, and I would say obligation, to perform oversight on administrations when they appear to be going rogue,” Dean told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “It’s absolutely an important use of our time.”
McGahn did not answer questions from reporters about his testimony after the Judiciary Committee interview concluded.
He served as the top lawyer on Trump’s 2016 campaign and was White House counsel until fall 2018. He was one of the most significant witnesses against Trump – sitting for interviews with the FBI and prosecutors five times in Mueller’s investigation as Mueller sought to chronicle the multiple instances of Trump’s obstructive acts.
Between 2017 and 2019, McGahn told the special counsel he refused to follow the President’s directions to fire Mueller “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” Mueller’s report said, referring to one of the darkest periods of the Nixon presidency during the Watergate scandal. Trump also told McGahn to deny he had tried to fire Mueller, but the lawyer wouldn’t do it, according to the Mueller report.
Following the Mueller report’s release, Trump again denied the episodes with McGahn, leaving his public statements to overshadow the Mueller report’s extensive documentation.
McGahn was also privy to the Justice Department, White House and Trump’s responses to then-national security adviser Michael Flynn negotiating with Russia before Trump took office and lying to the vice president and the FBI, Mueller wrote.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who told reporters on Friday that she had questioned McGahn during the closed-door interview, characterized his testimony as “forthright.”
“Today we found out facts and truths, as they relate to this whole saga of the past administration,” the Texas Democrat said.
Ranking committee member Jim Jordan, however, framed the nearly eight-hour-long interview as a waste of time.
“Today, we have the House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee relitigating the Mueller report,” the Ohio Republican said. “Don McGahn hasn’t been White House counsel for three years.”
Investigation in Congress’ hands
Democrats had been seeking McGahn’s testimony since shortly after Mueller’s investigation ended in spring 2019, when he defied their subpoena. After a lengthy court battle – and stonewalling from the Trump administration – they finally struck an agreement with the Biden Justice Department this spring that allowed for McGahn’s appearance on Friday. McGahn had been represented in the standoff in court by administration attorneys claiming he was immune from congressional testimony because of his high-ranking position in the White House. William Burck, a private attorney for McGahn, was to represent him in the interview Friday.
Nadler told reporters before walking back into the closed-door interview that having him testify “vindicates the congressional subpoena.”
An aide provided a list of Democratic members who were in the closed-door interview, which included Nadler, Jackson Lee and Dean as well as Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia, Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.
Jordan and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida were the only Republicans from the committee present.
House Democrats have continued to pursue multiple investigative threads related to Trump through the courts, including the McGahn testimony, Trump’s tax returns and other financial documents. The agreement for McGahn’s deposition marked a win for Democrats, though some Democrats fear the Biden administration won’t be helpful in other efforts, like their quest to obtain Trump’s tax returns.
In the 2019 Mueller report, the special counsel wrote that he was documenting the instances of obstruction so that Congress or future investigations could pick up the ball. The special counsel left the decision of whether to indict Trump for obstruction of justice to then-Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department’s top political appointees, who declined to prosecute Trump.
Under the agreement for McGahn’s testimony, committee members and staff who were to interview McGahn behind closed doors could ask him about the incidents documented in the Mueller report of Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller and block the Russia investigation, and about the Mueller investigation’s accuracy. The Justice Department could assert executive privilege or McGahn could decline to answer on other topics, meaning Democrats would be unable to press McGahn on other scandals that occurred during Trump’s presidency.
McGahn’s private attorney stepped in to stop an answer only a few times Friday, according to the person connected to McGahn, because the committee was potentially veering toward privileged conversations between McGahn and his lawyer. The Justice Department was vocal on some aspects of what McGahn couldn’t answer, the person said, though that wouldn’t be unusual for hearings like these.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.