White House officials asked Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to publicly say he did not believe President Donald Trump obstructed justice at least twice in the past month.
“We did not perceive it as any kind of threat or something sinister,” McGahn’s lawyer William Burcktold The New York Times, which first reported the news on Friday. “It was a request, professionally and cordially made.”
One of the requests to McGahn came before the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in the Russia investigation was released but after the Justice Department sent an advance copy of the document to the White House, The Times reported.
Officials are said to have believed that if McGahn publicly stated that Trump did not try to thwart the investigation, it would calm the president and help his lawyers dispute some of the instances of potential obstruction that Mueller detailed in his report.
INSIDER reached out to Burck to ask why McGahn declined the request if he did not view it as a “threat” or “something sinister.” Burck did not immediately reply.
The special counsel’s team declined to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump obstructed justice.
But Attorney General William Barr reviewed Mueller’s findings and, after consulting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, determined there was not enough evidence to charge Trump with an obstruction crime. He announced his decision in a letter laying out his “principal conclusions” before Mueller’s report was released to Congress and the public.
Once the document was released, though, Barr drew swift backlash for what many saw as an attempt towater down and mischaracterize Mueller’s findingsbefore the public had a chance to see them.
Barr also told reporters Mueller’s decision was not influenced by Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted. He said Mueller’s determination – or lack thereof – was prompted by the inconclusive nature of the evidence.
But in his report, Mueller did not cite the evidence as a reason he did not come to a decision on obstruction. He did, however, cite the policy against charging a sitting president.
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred,” prosecutors wrote. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Indeed, the special counsel laid out 11 potential examples of obstruction by the president and emphasized that he was unsuccessful in influencing the investigation largely because his own advisers – such as McGahn – refused to carry out his directives.
McGahn voluntarily sat down for over 30 hours of interviews with the special counsel’s office last year.
In one instance, McGahn told prosecutors Trump called him twice and ordered him to tell Rosenstein, then the acting attorney general, that Mueller had conflicts of interest and needed to be removed.
McGahn said he agreed to do so to get off the phone but planned to resign rather than carry out Trump’s order.
He then told Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon – who at the time were respectively the White House’s chief of staff and chief strategist – of his plans to quit. Priebus told prosecutors McGahn didn’t provide any more information, other than saying Trump had asked him to “do crazy s—.”
Later, after The Times reported on Trump’s efforts to have Mueller removed as special counsel, Trump ordered McGahn to publicly deny the reporting.
But “McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction” to remove Mueller “despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so,” the report said.
Since the release of Mueller’s report, Trump has lobbed attacks at McGahn and publicly accused him of fabricating his testimony.
McGahnput out a rare statement through his attorney after Trump attacked his credibility, saying the incidents of potential obstruction of justice that he relayed to Mueller’s team “are accurately described in the report.”