This is What Obstruction Looks Like: Trump and McGahn
When Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel for the Russia investigation President Donald Trump said it was “the end of his presidency.”
After it became public that Mueller was investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice, the president tried to have him fired and later attempted to get the White House Counsel Don McGahn to deny he made that request.
This summary of possible obstruction of justice by the president is drawn from information found in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s attack on our election.
Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, by Acting Attorney General Ron Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the investigation because of his ties to the Trump campaign.
Trump reacted to the news by telling advisors that it “was the end of his presidency” and demanded that Sessions resign. Sessions submitted his resignation, but the president ultimately didn’t accept it.
The president told aides that Mueller had conflicts of interest and suggested that he should therefore not serve. However, Trump’s advisors told him the asserted conflicts were meritless and already had been considered by the Department of Justice.
Trump prodded McGahn to talk to Rosenstein about this issue. During a conversation on May 23, 2017, McGahn told Trump he wouldn’t call Rosenstein and suggested that the president not make the call either.
McGahn said it would “look like still trying to meddle in [the] investigation” and “knocking out Mueller” would be another fact used to claim obstruction of justice.
He also said this wasn’t an issue for the White House counsel to handle and such concerns should be directed to Trump’s personal attorney.
On June 14, 2017, the media reported that the special counsel’s office was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice. Press reports called this “a major turning point” in the investigation.
Trump reacted to this news of the investigation with a series of tweets criticizing the Department of Justice and the special counsel’s investigation.
Three days after the news broke Trump called McGahn twice at home and directed him to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed.
McGahn didn’t carry out the direction and decided he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre. That was the nickname of the incident when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation.
McGahn subsequently decided not to resign. The next time McGahn saw Trump the president didn’t ask if he had followed through with calling Rosenstein.
On January 25, 2018, the press reported that Trump had directed McGahn to have the special counsel removed the previous summer and that McGahn had threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump called it “fake news.”
Trump attempted through intermediaries to get McGahn to deny the story. He wanted McGahn to create a record stating he had not been ordered to have the special counsel removed.
A White House staff member recalled Trump saying something like “If he doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him.” This message was relayed to McGahn.
Eventually Trump met with McGahn in the Oval Office. During that meeting, Trump said, “I never said to fire Mueller. I never said ‘fire.’”
In all instances, McGahn refused the president’s request, saying that the media reports were accurate in stating that Trump had directed him to have Mueller removed. He said he perceived the president to be testing his mettle.