Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sunday said he doesn’t care if President Donald Trump told then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller — the Mueller investigation is over.
“It’s all theater — it doesn’t matter,” the South Carolina Republican told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan. “I don’t care what he said to Don McGahn — it’s what he did. The president never obstructed.”
President Trump on Thursday said in a tweet that he had never asked then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, directly contradicting a detailed account in Mr. Mueller’s report.
“As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself.”
The special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election said that Mr. Trump “called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed.” The report, which the Justice Department released last week, relied on interviews that Mr. McGahn gave Mr. Mueller’s team in March 2018, after which Mr. Mueller concluded that “McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House.”
Mr. Mueller also wrote the president “made clear” to his chief of staff and chief strategist at the time—Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, respectively—that he was considering firing the special counsel. Both men spoke to the special counsel’s investigators. Mr. Trump declined to answer questions about obstruction of justice and declined to sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Trump has long denied reports that he sought to have Mr. McGahn fire Mr. Mueller, telling reporters in January 2018 that it was “fake news.” He subsequently asked his White House counsel to publicly deny the reports, which Mr. McGahn refused to do, according to the Mueller report. The special counsel investigated that episode, among others, in seeking to determine whether the president obstructed justice.
In the week since the 448-page report was released to the public, Mr. Trump has gone from saying it exonerates him to attacking some findings as “total bullshit.” His comments Thursday marked his first effort to contradict a key part of the report that raised the question of obstruction.
.. After reports surfaced in January 2018 of Mr. Trump’s directive to Mr. McGahn, Mr. Trump publicly denied the conversation and sought to have his White House counsel do the same. According to the Mueller report, Mr. Trump sought to have aides including his personal lawyer, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and former staff secretary Rob Porter ask Mr. McGahn to dispute the reports, at one point threatening to fire Mr. McGahn, according to Mr. Porter’s account to investigators.
In another instance recounted in the Mueller report, Mr. McGahn and the president met face-to-face in February 2018, where Mr. Trump asked him: “Did I say the word fire?” Mr. McGahn told the president that he had understood the conversation as “Call Rod. There are conflicts. Mueller has to go.” Mr. Trump then demanded to know why Mr. McGahn kept notes, saying, “I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
Advisers described the president’s response to the report in recent days as more impulsive than strategic, saying he was driven by media coverage of the report and its fallout rather than any plan to undermine the investigation. “He’s going to talk about it if it’s current and discussed and out there,” Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, said in an interview. “He’s not if it’s not.”
Meanwhile, some of the president’s advisers have opted for a more muted response to the report. Mr. Trump’s lawyers had prepared a 30-page counter-report to Mr. Mueller’s document—whittled down from 150 pages originally—that they planned to release the day the report came out. One week later, they haven’t yet released it.
When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.
On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.
Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.
Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.
The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.
Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.
Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”
Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.
Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.
Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.
The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.
The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
- When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
- tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
- went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through... But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller. But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone... Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it... Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign... Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.