The public airing of the notes — which document then-White House counsel Donald McGahn’s contemporaneous account of events and his fear that the president was engaged in legally risky conduct — has infuriated Trump.
“Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed,” Trump tweeted a day after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.
The scribe keeping track of the president’s actions was Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s chief of staff, a loyal and low-profile conservative lawyer who figures in the Mueller report as one of the most important narrators of internal White House turmoil.
Her daily habit of documenting conversations and meetings provided the special counsel’s office with its version of the Nixon White House tapes: a running account of the president’s actions, albeit in sentence fragments and concise descriptions.
Among the episodes memorialized in Donaldson’s notes and memos: the president’s outrage when FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed the existence of the investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Trump’s efforts to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from overseeing the probe and his push to get Mueller disqualified and removed as the special counsel.
The Harvard Law School graduate’s unflinching words — “Just in the middle of another Russia Fiasco,” she wrote on March 2, 2017 — have cast the die-hard Republican in an unfamiliar role: as a truth teller heralded by Trump’s foes for providing what they view as proof he is unfit for office.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has already signaled that he intends to subpoena Donaldson as a critical witness.
Donaldson — who lives in Montgomery, Ala., where her husband recently got a job as a federal prosecutor — did not respond to requests for comment.
She left the White House in December, both proud of her service and also somewhat stung by her experience in Washington, friends said.
.. Those close to Donaldson fear she will be thrust in the middle of the building war between congressional Democrats and the White House. Some privately worry she could become a target of the president, despite having worked hard to help implement his agenda.
“My only concern for her now is not getting too caught up in this Washington meat grinder, when she really did the right thing and cooperated as she was directed,” said former Republican senator Luther Strange, who hired Donaldson to work in his law firm in Alabama.
As McGahn’s chief of staff, Donaldson was charged with managing 30 to 40 lawyers in the counsel’s office, getting White House policies legally vetted, keeping judicial nominations on track and working with McGahn on Trump’s top priorities.
Along the way, she did what virtually all lawyers consider a necessity: kept a record of decisions, disputes, and tasks left to do. Nearly every day, when McGahn emerged from the Oval Office or other West Wing meetings, she would take notes as he recalled significant discussions with the president and his team, according to people familiar with her role.
In the case of Nixon, the discovery of his White House taping system provided unquestionable proof of his role in a coverup of his campaign’s illegal spying on opponents, precipitating his resignation in 1974.
Donald Trump specializes in spectacular breakups.
First there was Ivana. Then there was Marla. Now comes trouble in paradise with Kim.
.. This time, it wasn’t just lust, betrayal and secrets splayed across Page Six. This time, it was in Congress, part of an investigation that could lead to legal jeopardy for the Trumps or impeachment for the president.
.. In his testimony, Michael Cohen called himself a “fool” when it came to Trump. “I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have,” Cohen said. A fool for love, held in thrall by Trump. How could anyone be held in thrall by such a sleazy goofball, much less offer to take a bullet for him or make 500 threats on his behalf?
.. “It seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong,” said Cohen in his “Goodfellas” accent, adding that being around the “icon” was “intoxicating.”
“Mr. Trump is an enigma,” Cohen said. “He is complicated, as am I.”
Actually, Trump is simple, grasping for money, attention and fame. The enigma about Trump is why he cut off his lap dog so brutally that Cohen fell into the embrace of Robert Mueller and New York federal prosecutors. Trump is often compared to a mob boss, but Michael Corleone would never turn on a loyal capo, only on one who had crossed him.
The portrait Cohen drew of Trump was not surprising. It has been apparent for some time that the president is a con man, racist, cheat and liar. (See: Jared Kushner security clearance.)
What was most compelling about the congressional hearing was the portrait of the sadistic relationship between the sycophant and the sociopath.
The Trumps have often been compared to a mob family. Certainly, in the White House, they have created a dark alternative universe with an inverted ethical code, where the main value is loyalty to the godfather above all else.
An anti-Trump group called Mad Dog PAC has a billboard reading: “MAGA, Mobsters Are Governing America.”
.. As Michael Daly noted in The Daily Beast, “Traditionally, rats begin wearing a wire after they get jammed up.”
.. In the taped call, Cohen tells Trump that he has talked to the mogul’s trusted money manager and “Apprentice” guest star, Allen Weisselberg, about how to set up a company to reimburse David Pecker, the National Enquirer owner, for buying off Trump goomah Karen McDougal. Federal investigators in Manhattan now want to interview Weisselberg.
“Long term, this could be the most damaging,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me, “because it gets into Trump’s wallet.”
.. Cohen the Fixer claims Trump knew about the Russian meeting during the campaign with his son and Paul Manafort. The president hit the mattresses on Twitter, denying it all.
.. Rudy Giuliani has somersaulted from a RICO-happy prosecutor to a man acting like a Mafia lawyer, telling Chris Cuomo that Cohen is an “incredible liar” when only three months ago he pronounced him “an honest, honorable lawyer.”
.. If the White House seems more and more like “Goodfellas,” it is not an accident.
“Trump has a very cinematic sense of himself,” O’Brien said. Like many on social media, he is driven to be the star of his own movie. He even considered going to film school in L.A. before he settled into his father’s business.
.. O’Brien recalled that Trump told him that he thought Clint Eastwood was the greatest movie star. “He and Melania model their squints on Eastwood,” the biographer noted. Trump also remarked, while they were watching “Sunset Boulevard” on the Trump plane, that a particular scene was amazing: the one where Norma Desmond obsessively watches her silent films and cries: “Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them!”
.. Trump is drawn to people who know how to dominate a room and exaggerated displays of macho, citing three of his top five movies as
- “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,”
- “Goodfellas” and
- “The Godfather.”
.. As a young real estate developer, he would hang out at Yankee Stadium and study the larger-than-life figures in the V.I.P. box:
- George Steinbrenner,
- Lee Iacocca,
- Frank Sinatra,
- Roy Cohn,
- Rupert Murdoch,
- Cary Grant.
He was intent on learning how they grabbed the limelight.
.. “In his first big apartment project, Trump’s father had a partner connected to the Genovese and Gambino crime families,” said Michael D’Antonio, another Trump biographer. “He dealt with mobbed-up suppliers and union guys for decades.
.. “When Trump was a little boy, wandering around job sites with his dad — which was the only time he got to spend with him — he saw a lot of guys with broken noses and rough accents. And I think he is really enchanted by base male displays of strength. Think about ‘Goodfellas’ — people who prevail by cheating and fixing and lying. Trump doesn’t have the baseline intellect and experience to be proficient at governing. His proficiency is this mob style of bullying and tough-guy talk.”
As Steve Bannon noted approvingly, Trump has a Rat Pack air, and as O’Brien said, Trump was the sort of guy who kept gold bullion in his office.
.. Trump’s like a mobster, D’Antonio said, in the sense that he “does not believe that anyone is honest. He doesn’t believe that your motivations have anything to do with right and wrong and public service. It’s all about self-interest and a war of all against all. He’s turning America into Mulberry Street in the ’20s, where you meet your co-conspirators in the back of the candy store.”
Dowd was just the latest of several lawyers who have bailed on Trump. His longtime lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, was early on board and early to abandon ship — though he might yet come back. He, too, favored an aggressive strategy that, to Dowd and others, was sheer foolishness. At the moment, Trump’s team is led by Jay Sekulow, who has argued many times before the Supreme Court but has never tried a criminal case in his life. As is typical for a Trump aide, he has often appeared on Fox News. This, though, is not the same as courtroom experience.