Why White House counsel Don McGahn has Donald Trump extremely worried

McGahn talked to Robert Mueller's team for 30 hours. That's a huge blow for Trump, and the reasons why run deep

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 20, 2018 8:25AM (EDT)

Don McGahn (Getty/Alex Wong)
Don McGahn (Getty/Alex Wong)

Reading President Trump's Twitter feed over the past week, it's hard not to conclude that he feels the walls are closing in. It started with his former adviser and fellow reality TV star Omarosa's new book. She accused him of being a racist and, even more unsettlingly, revealed that she has been taping conversations with people in the campaign and the White House, including the president himself.

Meanwhile, Paul Manafort's trial was coming to a conclusion. Trump seemed so unnerved by that spectacle that he went before the cameras and hinted strongly to any supporters on the jury that he thought they should acquit his former campaign chairman because the whole trial is "very unfair."

In what seems to have been a blatant attempt to change the subject, Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, ostensibly for his erratic behavior on the internet. (That took some real chutzpah.) This dramatic action resulted in major pushback from the intelligence community, starting with a scathing Washington Post op-ed by retired U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven, the man who led the bin Laden mission. He asked for his own security clearance to be revoked in solidarity with Brennan:

Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation. If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.

This was followed by similar criticisms from top intelligence officials going back nearly 40 years.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the administration has a list of more such enemies at the ready. They're subject to having their clearances removed when the White House needs to shift the media attention. If that's the case, look for more clearances to be revoked this week. The New York Times published a major story on Saturday night, followed up with reactions on Sunday, that has the White House in a tailspin.

According to the Times, White House counsel Don McGahn has been extremely forthcoming with special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump and his lawyers have made a big show of asserting they have fully cooperated with the investigation, and it's true they have not claimed executive privilege, refused to turn over documents or stonewalled on interviews -- except when it comes to the president himself, whose lawyers apparently understand that he can't tell the truth and would only get himself in trouble. As Barack Obama's former White House counsel, Bob Bauer, makes clear in this post for Lawfare, there's nothing unusual about the White House counsel cooperating with a prosecutor, since his obligation is to the office of the presidency, not the sitting president. It's a requirement, in fact.

But the Times reports McGahn has spent more than 30 hours in interviews, which certainly suggests that he had something interesting to tell the prosecutors. What made this such a bombshell was the revelation that McGahn and his lawyer became convinced some time back that Trump was preparing to throw McGahn under the bus and blame him for "shoddy" legal advice. So they decided he needed to make sure he wasn't implicated. The Times further reports that Trump and his lawyers were unaware of the scope of McGahn's cooperation, particularly in regard to possible obstruction of justice by the president.

Trump reacted as one would expect. He took to Twitter and tried to claim that he has no issue with McGahn, while rather too obviously revealing his state of mind by claiming that John Dean, who blew the whistle on Richard Nixon's abuse of power, was a "rat."

He is clearly cracking under the pressure, and you can understand why. Learning from The New York Times that McGahn spent 30 hours being interviewed by prosecutors had to come as a particular blow, and not necessarily for the reasons assumed in the story.

READ MORE: Why this Watergate anniversary says so much about Donald Trump

As journalist Marcy Wheeler has astutely observed, the assumption that McGahn is only providing information about possible obstruction of justice may not be correct. After all, he was with the campaign as its general counsel from very early on and is one of the GOP's top campaign finance and election law experts. He ran the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee for nearly a decade and served as a controversial member of the Federal Election Commission from 2008 to 2013. If there is anyone in the Trump campaign who should have known what the legal exposure for accepting "things of value" from a foreign entity might be, it is Don McGahn.

Wheeler also points out that McGahn has a long history with Roger Stone and various dubious fundraising schemes that are likely to be of interest to the Mueller team as they seem to be homing in on the notorious dirty trickster. And McGahn himself has some interesting experience with Russian pay-to-play schemes going back to his days as former GOP House Whip Tom DeLay's lawyer.

In the late '90s, DeLay and his chief of staff came under scrutiny for some trips he took to Russia with the corrupt K Street lobbyist Jack Abramoff. These were organized by Russian oil and gas executives who wanted to lobby the U.S. government for more foreign aid. The trips were paid for by a shadowy group in the Bahamas associated with Abramoff and suspected of being financed by these Russian players. DeLay subsequently voted for the bill the Russians were pushing.

The kicker was that the Russian businessmen had also given a million dollars to something called the U.S. Family Network, an "advocacy" group founded by DeLay's former chief of staff and part of what was known as DeLay's "political money carousel." That group also received half a million from the National Republican Campaign Committee, where McGahn, who was DeLay's lawyer, worked as in-house counsel.

When some Democratic groups ran ads against DeLay in 2006, accusing him of pay-for-play corruption, Don McGahn publicly defended him, saying that there was no Russian connection and that there was nothing illegal about it anyway. (An argument that may sound somewhat familiar at present.) But the suspicion that the disgraced DeLay had engaged in a highly lucrative quid pro quo with Russian oligarchs lingered on.

Don McGahn's background as an election law expert and criminal defense lawyer for corrupt politicians with suspicious connections to Russian oligarchs made him a perfect choice for Donald Trump's campaign. It also makes him a highly desirable witness for Robert Mueller's investigation. Thirty hours of interviews can cover a lot of ground.

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By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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