House Democrats’ hopes of making Annie Donaldson, the former chief of staff to ex-White House counsel Donald McGahn, a star witness in their investigations of President Trump were dashed as White House lawyers blocked her from answering more than 200 questions about potential obstruction of justice by the president.
Donaldson affirmed the accuracy of colorful and striking notes she made while working in the White House — notes that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III cited 65 times in his report that described 10 episodes that raised concerns about possible obstruction.
But Trump administration lawyers barred her from elaborating on her thinking at the time she captured several exchanges between Trump and her boss — including one note in which she scribbled concern that Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director would trigger the end of his presidency.
In total, the White House blocked Donaldson from answering 212 questions, according to her written answers. The committee received them this past weekend and released them on Monday.
That situation underscores the difficulty Democrats have faced as they try to bring the Mueller report to life — challenges they hope will evaporate next week when Mueller testifies publicly about his findings for the first time.
Donaldson had a unique role in the White House, witnessing firsthand Trump’s interactions with White House lawyers as he lashed out at the Russia investigation. Yet Donaldson would answer questions only in writing. And while she did confirm many of the findings in the 448-page, redacted Mueller report, she didn’t answer many — if any — of the major questions Democrats hoped she would.
In her written answers to the committee, Donaldson did affirm that the special counsel accurately quoted from her notes as well as the accuracy of the testimony she provided in her interviews. For instance, she confirmed that after Trump fired Comey, she wrote in her notes: “Is this the beginning of the end?”
She also affirmed that she told the special counsel’s office that she wrote the note because she was worried the decision to fire Comey would end Trump’s presidency.
But asked to further explain why she believed Trump’s decision was so problematic, Donaldson indicated that the White House had directed her not to answer the question, due to “constitutionally-based executive branch confidentiality interests.”
She affirmed that she intended to resign in June 2017 after McGahn told her he was making plans to resign rather than follow through with a directive from the president that made him uncomfortable.
The report said that shortly after Mueller was appointed, Trump called McGahn twice to ask him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and get him to fire Mueller. Rather than follow the order, McGahn told prosecutors that he went to the White House on a Saturday to pack up his belongings and prepared to quit. He also said he called Donaldson to alert her to his decision but that he purposely provided her no details of the president's request because he was trying not to involve her.
Asked if Mueller's report nevertheless accurately reflected her decision to resign with her boss, Donaldson responded, “yes.” But asked to explain that decision, she indicated that she was barred from answering by the White House.
Ultimately, neither McGahn nor Donaldson resigned, and Trump let his directive drop.
Donaldson declined to answer several questions about who in her own office expressed specific views she transcribed in her notes, even though she was most often transcribing the concerns of her boss — McGahn. For example, Donaldson declined to say who in the White House Counsel’s Office urged that the president’s original draft termination letter for Comey that cited the Russia investigation “should not see the light of day.”
According to his own testimony, McGahn was concerned about the president’s emphasis on the Russia case, and urged having a new termination letter and cover letter that would instead emphasize other rationales from senior Justice officials for terminating Comey.
Donaldson did confirm several events in the Mueller report, including that White House lawyers ordered that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should not be contacted by anyone in the White House about his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. But administration attorneys kept Donaldson from elaborating on Trump’s stated worries that Sessions’s recusal would leave him exposed in the investigation. In her notes she had written “No contact w/Sessions” and “No comms/Serious concerns about obstruction.”
Donaldson would also not talk about her boss’s warning to Trump that he should not personally contact Comey about the Russia investigation — or elaborate on her scribble saying “POTUS in panic/chaos” relating to the probe. She did, however, confirm that McGahn warned Trump that suggesting Mueller had a “conflict of interest” could be seen as obstruction, as could other contacts he’d made on the matter.
Donaldson’s unwillingness to appear in public or buck the White House’s instructions not to respond to certain questions once again denies Democrats another witness they’d hoped would illuminate for the public what they view as abuse of power by the Trump administration.
Something similar occurred in early June, when former White House aide Hope Hicks appeared before the panel only privately and also refused to answer major questions. The White House blocked her from responding to inquiries about her time in the Trump administration, claiming she had immunity.
White House lawyers took a different tack with Donaldson, however, invoking what panel Democrats are calling a “sham principle”: “the constitutionally-based executive branch confidentiality interests that are implicated.”
“This is another trick being used to interfere with the committee’s investigation,” the panel said in a news release Monday night.
And yet panel Democrats have little recourse, unless they are willing to hold Donaldson — who is unable to travel because she is pregnant — in civil contempt and take her to court to try to get a judge to force her to answer questions over the objections of White House officials.
At times, Donaldson appeared to be unwilling to elaborate, without the White House stepping in. In the few cases in which she did not cite the White House for refusing to respond to a question, Donaldson stated that she was not a first-person witness to the discussion the committee was asking about, or that she couldn’t precisely remember what she heard or saw.