Former White House Counsel Don McGahn said that telling the Justice Department to fire special counsel Robert Mueller at former President Trump’s urging would have been a “point of no return” that left him feeling “trapped” in his position.
But in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee following a two-year court battle, McGahn said he did not witness any lawbreaking or obstruction of justice and agreed with the president’s other decisions, including firing former FBI Director James Comey.
McGahn’s testimony came nearly four years after the episodes documented in Mueller’s report on Russian interference and obstruction of justice. While it offered context to some of his decision making and testimony to the special counsel, it offered few new revelations about what occurred at the time.
McGahn testified that the former president did ask him multiple times to tell former deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller had conflicts of interest that should prevent him from serving as special counsel. The discussions happened so many times that McGahn said he felt “trapped” by the request and prepared to resign if he was asked to do so again.
His concern about calling Rosenstein, McGahn said, was that the former deputy Attorney General “could potentially react in a way that would cause him to potentially resign, and that would cause a chain reaction that would be not in anyone’s interest,” he said.
He described this moment to the special counsel as an “inflection point” in Mueller’s report and expanded on that in his interview with House Judiciary, saying it would have been “a point of no return.”
“If the acting Attorney General received what he thought was a direction from the counsel to the president to remove a special counsel, he would either have to remove the special counsel or resign,” McGahn said.
McGahn referenced the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, when then-President Richard Nixon’s top two officials at the Department of Justice resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“We are still talking about the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ decades and decades later. And, looking back, you always, as a student of history, wonder, could things have gone differently if different people made different decisions?,” McGahn said. “This seemed to be an inflection point. It was time to hit the brakes and not make a phone call to Rod to raise this issue that the president had continued to raise with me. It seemed to me that it’d be easier for me to not make the call and take whatever heat or fallout there would be than to cause, potentially, a chain reaction that I think would not be in the best interest of the President.”
Moments later, however, McGahn cautioned not to read too much into the analogy, because Mr. Trump “never, for example, got anywhere near ordering shutting down the office of Mueller. It was Mueller and conflicts.”
McGahn did say that Mr. Trump never asked him to call Mueller directly and fire him. He also said he supported the former president on another controversial issue, his decision to fire Comey.
“The narrative at the time, as I recall it, was that the removal of the director of the FBI was its own problem. In my view, that wasn’t. That was within the president’s power,” McGahn said.
House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler said in a statement that McGahn “provided the Committee with substantial new information—including firsthand accounts of President Trump’s increasingly out of control behavior, and insight into concerns that the former President’s conduct could expose both Trump and McGahn to criminal liability.”
“All told, Mr. McGahn’s testimony gives us a fresh look at how dangerously close President Trump brought us to, in Mr. McGahn’s words, the ‘point of no return,'” he added.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed McGahn’s testimony as “a victory for democracy.”
But the committee’s top Republican, Jim Jordan, released a memo arguing the interview uncovered no evidence of misconduct, wrongdoing or criminality by the former president, nor any effort to stifle other inquiries from the administration.
McGahn’s testimony before the panel marks the culmination of a years-long dispute over a subpoena issued by the Judiciary Committee in April 2019 after Mueller released his long-awaited report. McGahn met voluntarily with Mueller’s investigators and was cited extensively in the special counsel’s volume on obstruction of justice, which did not conclude whether Mr. Trump was guilty or innocent of such charges.
Under the court agreement for his testimony, McGahn could only answer questions about what he told the special counsel and any episode where he was referenced in the publicly-available version of the report.
Zak Hudak, Nikole Killion, Paulina Smolinski and Fritz Farrow contributed to this report.