John Dean was the White House’s legal counsel under President Nixon. When Nixon was forced to resign in 1974, it was in part because of information Dean provided to investigators regarding Nixon’s efforts to cover up his involvement in the Watergate scandal — or, in other words, how the president obstructed justice. The Trump White House has a legal counsel, too. His name is Don McGahn, and over the weekend the New York Times reported that he has been a fully cooperative and “fruitful” witness for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, sitting down for over 30 hours of interviews. Trump responded to the report by firing off several angry tweets from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. He resumed his tantrum Monday morning.
Though Trump cites “disgraced and discredited” Mueller’s “Angry Democrat Thugs” needing 30 hours with McGahn as some sort of proof the investigation is a hoax, others may argue that so much time was necessary because there was plenty to discuss. The Times reported that McGahn provided investigators with “a clear view of the president’s most intimate moments with his lawyer,” including their interactions regarding the firing of James Comey, Trump’s attempts to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to assume control of the investigation, his attempts to fire Mueller and more. In other words, they spoke about the issues that would be pertinent to an obstruction of justice case against the president.
The potential windfall for Mueller’s investigation was enabled largely by the incompetence of Trump and his legal team. When McGahn first sat down with federal investigators last fall, Trump’s then-lawyers Ty Cobb and John Dowd preached transparency. Trump maintained he did nothing wrong and, for some reason, they believed him, reasoning that the more they cooperated with Mueller, the quicker the investigation would conclude. McGahn and his lawyer were so perplexed by this strategy that they figured Trump had to be setting McGahn up. If the president allowed the White House legal counsel to speak with Mueller’s team about their conversations regarding potential instances of obstruction of justice, Trump could then tell Mueller that he was only following McGahn’s advice. To prevent himself from being thrown under the bus, McGahn cooperated as thoroughly as possible with Mueller’s investigation.
But it’s hard for Trump to pin everything on McGahn when he refuses to sit down with Mueller himself. As the Times notes, it later became apparent to McGahn and his lawyer that they had “overestimated the amount of thought that they believed the president put into his legal strategy.” Trump was also reportedly under the impression that McGahn was essentially his personal lawyer — and would thus try to protect him — rather than a representative for the office of the presidency.
On Sunday morning, Trump tried to explain that all of this only proved his innocence, while also equating the man who helped bring down Nixon to a “RAT.”
The transparency argument no longer holds water, though, as Trump’s new legal team led by Rudy Giuliani hasn’t been so keen to cooperate with Mueller. Earlier this summer the president’s lawyers stonewalled a request from the special counsel to speak with Chief of Staff John Kelly, and they have repeatedly rebuffed attempts by Mueller to secure an interview with Trump, rightfully fearing that the president would incriminate himself. Though it may seem impossible to rationalize keeping Trump away from Mueller while simultaneously maintaining the president did nothing wrong, it hasn’t keep Giuliani from trying. As evidence against the president continues to mount, his chief legal counsel’s TV appearances have grown increasingly bizarre, with his frantic defenses of his client hinging increasingly on abstract philosophical questions about the nature of reality. Last month, he cited the fallibility of the human condition while explaining why Trump employed Michael Cohen for a decade. On Sunday morning, he tried to argue on Meet the Press that “truth isn’t truth” while defending his decision to prevent Trump from sitting down with Mueller.
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Giuliani also addressed the Times report about McGahn, and, like Trump, he tried to argue that the White House legal counsel’s extensive cooperation with Mueller was actually a good thing. “It puts us in a very strong position to say they don’t need to question [the president],” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. He went on to claim he knows what McGahn told Mueller’s team over the course of the 30 hours they spent together. “We have a good sense obviously of what Mr. McGahn testified,” he said. “I can figure it out.”
But shortly after Giuliani’s appearance on Meet the Press, the Times reported that Trump’s legal team actually has very little idea of what McGahn told Mueller. According to the Times, McGahn’s lawyer only gave Trump’s team a “short overview of the interview but few details” and “he did not inform them of what Mr. McGahn said in subsequent interactions with the investigators.” Considering McGahn’s involvement in discussions regarding pretty much every issue regarding the president’s potential obstruction of justice, the White House counsel’s testimony could be a debilitating blow to the fledgling argument that Trump never tried to interfere with the investigation.
Trump need not worry, though. Giuliani is going to “figure it out.”
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