President Trump had a request for his lawyer: Call a senior Justice Department official and get him to persuade the FBI director to announce that Trump was not personally under investigation in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
White House counsel Donald McGahn made the call in April to acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente but failed to convince him that FBI Director James B. Comey should make the statement, according to several people familiar with the episode. The refusal further frustrated a president who had already twice appealed directly to Comey, who told him he should have McGahn call instead.
The previously unreported episode underscores McGahn’s precarious position in the Russia probe as he seeks to both mollify and protect his client, the commander in chief. He has served as an adviser, a participant and most recently a witness in the continuing Russia investigation — a complex role that puts him at the center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s examination of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice.
He is also embroiled in the uproar over former staff secretary Rob Porter, who left the White House last week after allegations of abuse during his two marriages became public. McGahn had been informed several times since January 2017 that Porter’s ex-wives had complaints about his behavior — including learning in the fall about the domestic-violence allegations discovered by the FBI — yet Porter was allowed to stay on the job and hold an interim security clearance for more than a year, according to officials and public testimony.
McGahn’s central role in such controversies, and his failure to shape events to the president’s wishes, have led to ongoing tensions with Trump and left him increasingly isolated in the West Wing.
“It’s a complicated relationship,” said one person close to McGahn, referring to Trump and his counsel. “I don’t think Trump dislikes him. . . . But the big problem between them is that Trump has always seen lawyers as facilitators for him. He doesn’t see lawyers as people who say no to him.” The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Russia investigation.
A spokesman for the White House declined to comment but said McGahn has the confidence of the president. Through a representative, McGahn declined to comment.
McGahn has frequently been at odds with the other White House attorneys, particularly Ty Cobb, who has been assigned to deal with the Russia investigation. Late last year, for example, McGahn thought Cobb should try to limit the questions he and his team would face from Mueller and protect the White House by asserting attorney-client privilege, according to people McGahn talked to at the time.
But Cobb, who has said he is eager to show the White House is cooperating, said all aides would answer questions freely. McGahn spent two days with the special counsel’s office in December and later told associates he was “thrown to the wolves,” according to people who have spoken to him. Seven other lawyers also spoke to Mueller.
McGahn has told others that Cobb is not a careful lawyer and is not carefully reviewing documents or preparing people to testify. In private conversations, McGahn has questioned whether Cobb leaked stories to the news media that could imperil McGahn’s standing in the White House. Cobb declined to comment.
When McGahn was hired as White House counsel, he was known largely as a campaign finance expert and not necessarily deeply versed in the kind of law that White House officials face every day. But he had advised Trump’s campaign while working at the Jones Day law firm and Trump saw him as a scrappy lawyer on the campaign trail.
Friends say McGahn probably appealed to the president with his get-to-the-point style. From the start, though, McGahn found himself in the thick of virtually every White House controversy.
Lawyers with experience in Washington said it’s difficult to fully judge McGahn, given the man for whom he works.
“It is always hard to account for the challenges of advising or managing a White House presided over by Donald Trump,” said Bob Bauer, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration. “Here the question is, how much of the problem is Trump, including the tone he sets on these kinds of issues, and how much a major breakdown all around in systems, process and basic good judgment?”
McGahn first became entangled in the Russia investigation when acting attorney general Sally Yates wanted to warn the White House in January 2017 that its national security adviser was potentially susceptible to Russian blackmail because he had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States. She passed that message to McGahn.
The White House has said McGahn conducted his own review to determine whether the adviser, Michael Flynn, had acted illegally, ultimately concluding he had not. Flynn pleaded guilty late last year for lying to the FBI about his dealings with the Russian.
People familiar with the episode say that McGahn’s office prepared a detailed reconstruction of the 18 days between the time of Yates’s warning and Flynn’s firing, a document that has now been turned over to Mueller for his review.
McGahn’s handling of sensitive personnel issues — particularly when they intersected with Russia — has been a frequent source of tension with Trump.
In March, at Trump’s direction, McGahn tried and failed to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe — a decision that has rankled Trump ever since, people familiar with the matter said. In June, McGahn declined to follow through on an order from Trump to fire Mueller, people familiar with the matter said.
McGahn, particularly in the early months of the administration, cautioned Trump about contacting Justice Department officials and even told associates he was concerned Trump was doing so without his knowledge. The two men would have “spectacular” fights, according to a person who witnessed some of them.
The episode between McGahn and Boente was sparked by the president’s own unsuccessful attempt to persuade Comey in March to “get out” the fact that the president was not personally under investigation.
Comey said in written congressional testimony that he told the president he would “see what we could do,” then reported the conversation to Boente, who was supervising the Russia probe at the time. The next month, Comey testified, Trump called him again to ask what the then FBI director had done about his request.
Comey said in his testimony that he told the president he had passed his request to Boente, and Trump responded that “perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General.”
“I said that was the way his request should be handled,” Comey said in his prepared testimony. “I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.”
Justice Department policies do allow for the White House counsel to talk to the deputy attorney general about ongoing criminal cases, though they say such contacts should come only when it is important for the execution of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective. A person familiar with Boente and McGahn’s conversation said the White House counsel asked the Justice Department official at the outset whether the matter was one they could properly discuss. Boente, then the acting deputy attorney general, is now the general counsel at the FBI.
McGahn’s role in the ongoing scandal over Porter has also prompted some in the White House to question his judgment. On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray laid out a timeline of events about Porter’s background check that calls into question the White House’s assertion that the process was ongoing.
McGahn’s value to Trump has been most apparent in the role he played in helping select Neil M. Gorsuch as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee as well as with the numerous candidates who have now been confirmed for federal court judgeships across the country. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) often praises McGahn to Trump and tells the president his top lawyer is shaping his legacy on judges in a positive way — words Trump likes hearing.
McGahn’s friends, meanwhile, say he is not anxious to jump ship while the White House remains in hot water — despite the tensions and difficulties posed by working for Trump.
“Good lawyers try not to abandon their clients,” the person close to McGahn said. “And the client isn’t Trump; it’s the presidency.”