If you read between the lines, though, McGahn’s elaboration on previously known facts doesn’t exactly paint a glowing picture of his former boss.
McGahn describes Trump as a dog after a bone — a bone that he wouldn’t provide. He admits he lied to Trump about carrying out his requests, repeatedly saying he just wanted to get Trump “off the phone.” He describes Trump as someone who wouldn’t take the hint and move on.
McGahn’s testimony centers on when he says Trump asked him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to press him on Mueller’s supposed conflicts of interests, and when Trump more explicitly asked McGahn later to get Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
McGahn says explicitly that he told Trump he would call Rosenstein about Mueller’s supposed conflicts, even though he had no intention of doing so:
Q: [Reading from the Mueller report] “McGahn said he told the President that he would see what he could do.”MCGAHN: I did say that, yeah. Yeah.Q: Did you intend to see what you could do?MCGAHN: No.Q: Then why did you say that to the president?MCGAHN: I was trying to get off the phone.
“Get off the phone” is a phrase McGahn would utter five other times during his testimony.
McGahn says he became “perturbed” with Trump when, in June 2017, the president called him on a weekend to re-up his requests. McGahn felt the two of them should have been celebrating the investiture ceremony of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, whose elevation was a key moment for both men. (McGahn used his time in the White House to reshape the nation’s court system.):
Q: Were you perturbed by that phone call?MCGAHN: Yes.Q: Why?A: It was a conversation we’d had many times before. I thought I had been clear on my views and my advice, but we were having the same conversation again and again and again, coupled with the fact it was a Saturday and it -- you know, after the investiture of Neil Gorsuch, I thought we were going to take a little pause over the weekend and smile for once. But we did not smile; we continued wanting to talk about conflicts of interest and Bob Mueller.
That last line is practically dripping with exasperation.
McGahn added later: “As I indicated earlier, we had had a number of conversations on this topic. We were having the conversation yet again. I was uncomfortable making the call to Rosenstein. I had conveyed that to the president on previous occasions, but yet here we were having the same conversation again, him asking me to do something that I thought had been clear that I wasn’t going to do.”
After a call in which McGahn said Trump was more explicit about getting Mueller fired, McGahn said he felt both “perturbed” and “trapped.” He again said Trump couldn’t stop talking about it, despite McGahn’s stance.
“I felt trapped because the president had the same conversation with me repeatedly, and I thought I conveyed my views and offered my advice, and we were still having the same conversation,” McGahn said. “And I figured, at some point, he’d want to have that conversation again. And, at that point, I wasn’t exactly sure how — how to navigate that one, so I felt that I was trapped.”
McGahn describes Trump as someone with whom you rarely leave a conversation conclusively.
“There’s never really a good beginning, middle and end,” he said.
At another point, McGahn is asked whether he agrees with former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus quoting him as having said Trump tried to get McGahn to “do crazy [expletive].” McGahn is not cited in the report as confirming that quote, but he said it was a “fair” characterization of how he viewed Trump’s request.
“Well, the President probably thinks this is an unfair characterization,” McGahn said, “but I … think it’s fair.”
This is a somewhat familiar exercise with anonymous and former White House staffers — talking about Trump as if he wasn’t the most powerful man in the world, but some kind of unwieldy teenager who needed to be managed. The alternate explanation for Trump’s conduct, of course, is that he was trying to pressure McGahn to do what McGahn had refused to do. But McGahn seemed to believe that he had made his intentions clear and that Trump just insisted on having the conversation over and over again for some reason.
Neither explanation is great for Trump, of course. Either he badly failed to read his White House lawyer’s intentions or he insisted on pressing something McGahn clearly regarded as out of bounds. McGahn is careful to say that he didn’t think Trump obstructed justice — despite Mueller having reported extensive evidence to that effect — but it doesn’t exactly suggest a president who was good about respecting those boundaries and taking the advice of his lawyers.