White House counsel Donald McGahn does not believe that he implicated President Trump in any legal wrongdoing in extensive interviews he has given the special counsel, McGahn’s attorney told Trump’s legal team in recent days.
The assurances from McGahn’s attorney came as the president and his lawyers pushed back against the suggestion in a New York Times report that Trump’s attorneys have little insight into what McGahn told special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether Trump has sought to obstruct that probe.
McGahn’s attorney, Bill Burck, told Trump’s lawyers this past weekend that McGahn did not assert that Trump engaged in any wrongdoing when he spoke to Mueller’s investigators in three lengthy interviews since last November, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
“He did not incriminate him,” Burck wrote in one email, which was described by multiple people.
McGahn referred questions to Burck, who declined to comment.
McGahn, who serves as the president’s lawyer in his executive role, is a critical firsthand witness to many key moments of Trump’s presidency that Mueller’s team is studying.
Mueller’s investigators have asked the White House counsel about the president’s private actions when he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, when he raged publicly that Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to maintain control over the Russia probe and when he suggested he might oust the probe’s supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, according to people with knowledge of the questions.
Burck has assured Trump’s lawyers that McGahn did not witness Trump engaged in any crime and would have resigned from his White House post if he had, according to people familiar with the conversations.
At the same time, Burck has cautioned them that McGahn is only one witness and that he does not know all the evidence Mueller has gathered that could pose problems for Trump, or how the information McGahn has provided could fit into the broader case.
Both Trump and his attorneys have cast McGahn’s interviews with Mueller’s team as a sign of his willingness to cooperate with the probe.
“Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs spent over 30 hours with the White House Councel, only with my approval, for purposes of transparency,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Anybody needing that much time when they know there is no Russian Collusion is just someone looking for trouble.”
But there is some dispute about how much detail Trump’s lawyers have about what McGahn told Mueller.
Former Trump attorney John Dowd debriefed both McGahn and his lawyer about McGahn’s interview sessions with the special counsel, which began with an all-day interview he had in late November, according to two Trump advisers.
Dowd did not believe McGahn had shared any damaging information, they said.
But Dowd asked only for a broad assessment of how McGahn’s sessions with Mueller had gone, rather than specifics, according to another person familiar with the discussions. A deeper debrief might have prevented the White House from being surprised by some details that later emerged in news reports, the person said.
Now, however, after intense media coverage, the person said, there is little Trump’s lawyers don’t know about McGahn’s role in key events, the person said.
On Monday, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani told Fox News that Dowd “got a complete version of what McGahn said during that period of time.”
Giuliani acknowledged that he personally did not know all the details of what McGahn had told Mueller’s team. “Now, I do,” Giuliani said, noting that he went over the details thoroughly in the last few days.
McGahn is far from the only member of Trump’s inner circle who has been interviewed extensively by Mueller’s team. Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has sat for about 20 hours of questioning and provided extensive contemporaneous notes he took during his time in the White House. Former senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon agreed to voluntary interviews that lasted 20 hours. Former press secretary Sean Spicer also sat for multiple days of interviews.
McGahn and other White House staffers participated in the Mueller interviews as a result of the Trump legal team’s decision last summer to cooperate with the investigation.
Early on, it was a strategy McGahn and his attorney considered unwise because it would allow investigators to get information from a key legal counselor to the president, according to multiple people familiar with their objections. They believed Trump’s lawyers should have claimed attorney-client privilege for McGahn.
But Dowd, and the president’s in-house lawyer at the time, Ty Cobb, believed that cooperating with Mueller would hasten the conclusion of the investigation and could shield the president from having to answer Mueller’s questions directly.
They agreed to turn over thousands of responsive records and provide staff for voluntary interviews, rather than spend months battling over grand jury testimony and records.
“The strategy is working,” Dowd said in a statement Monday, adding that Mueller cannot compel Trump to testify because “all of his questions have been answered by 37 cooperating witnesses [and] 1.4 million documents.”
“We protected the president,” he added.
Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump, said the strategy was also designed to help speed the investigation while protecting the White House as an institution.
“What Ty Cobb and John Dowd did was very calculated,” Sekulow said, “with the ultimate goal of being as transparent as possible.”
Nevertheless, the president has complained in recent days that he should have exerted more privilege over documents and interviews, according to a Trump ally. He has also publicly expressed increasing ire toward the probe and begun directly attacking Mueller and his team on Twitter.
“Mueller’s Angry Dems are looking to impact the election,” he tweeted Monday without evidence. “They are a National Disgrace!”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.