The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it for yourself. pt. 8

 

The President Orders McGahn to Deny that the President Tried to Fire the Special Counsel

            Mr. Trump apparently obstructed justice to cover up an attempted obstruction of justice meant to hide his earlier obstruction of justice.

            As we saw in Volume One of the Special Counsel’s report, there were many contacts between official and unofficial agents of the Russian government as part of Russia’s efforts to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help elect Donald Trump.  Sometimes the Trump campaign personnel might have been unaware or uncertain as to who was ultimately pulling the strings, such as when Roger Stone colluded with WikiLeaks without necessarily knowing for certain that their source Gruciffer 2.0 was in fact Russian military intelligence.  Other times, such as Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting at the Trump Tower, they definitely did know they were working with the Russian government to affect the outcome of elections in the United States, and eagerly cooperated.  During the campaign some of these efforts came to the knowledge of the U.S. intelligence community, but GOP leaders such as Sen. McConnell worked to cover them up.  After the election, counterintelligence and criminal investigations continued, eventually leading to a number of indictments, arrests and convictions, with fines exceeding the costs of the investigations themselves according to official figures cited by the White House.  Among these was the investigation and conviction of Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI under oath.  Mr. Trump’s attempts to interfere with this investigation became the first possible obstruction of justice incident discussed in Volume Two of the Mueller report.  Trump’s involving himself in that investigation led to questions of his own complicity, and his efforts to squash those questions involved him in more potential acts of obstruction of justice, and ultimately compelled the appointment of a Special Counsel.  This in turn led to still more acts of potential obstruction, including his efforts to fire Special Counsel Mueller, efforts that were thwarted primarily by the fact that those around Trump refused to follow his instructions.

            In late January 2018, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had ordered Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller based on bogus allegations of conflict of interest, and that McGahn had threatened to resign rather than carry this order out.  The Washington Post later corrected that story, reporting that McGahn had not in fact told Trump he would resign rather than carry out his instructions.   In response to these reports, Trump ordered McGahn to publicly deny that he had ever attempted to have Mueller fired, and that the entire story was “fake news.”  He also instructed that McGahn should write out a memo stating that Trump had never ordered Mueller be fired, so the White House would have the statement for their records.  As we have seen, the Mueller report concluded, based on multiple eyewitness accounts given under oath, that something like the Post report was true:  Trump did demand that Mueller be removed and McGahn had refused to carry though on those instructions.  He had not threatened to resign, however, so the Times version was wrong on that point alone; he had discussed resigning with others and had been talked out of it, and in the end Trump had given up on his efforts to fire Mueller.  McGahn therefore said that he would not dispute the press reports since they were mostly accurate.  Trump repeatedly insisted that he had never said Mueller should be fired, largely disputing whether he had used the word “fired.”  McGahn countered that his memory was that regardless of the exact words, the order itself was as reported, that “Mueller has to go;” and furthermore, he had taken notes of the conversations to help his memory.  Trump demanded to know why McGahn took notes; McGahn replied that he was “a real lawyer” and real lawyers take notes of important meetings and conversations.  Trump sent intermediaries to McGahn to tell him he’d be fired if he didn’t make a public statement disputing the Times and Post reports; he replied that the President* wouldn’t dare fire him because the optics would be terrible.  McGahn also said that he thought Trump was “testing his mettle” by repeatedly challenging his memory of their conversations, since it was so obvious that he was certain and would not change his mind.

            In analyzing this episode, the Special Counsel considered the following elements:

1.     Obstructive Act:  The report specifically examines the repeated efforts to not only get McGahn to deny the New York Times story, but to create a written record denying the account which the White House could keep, in Mr. Trump’s words, “for our records.”  Did Trump genuinely and simply have a different recollection of events?  Or was his continual effort to get McGahn to create a record different from what he had told the FBI part of an effort to create a false story which could be used to undermine McGahn if he testified truthfully about these events?  While the report states, “There is some evidence that….the President believed the stories were wrong and that he had never told McGahn to have Rosentein remove the Special Counsel,” it continues, “Other evidence cuts against that understanding of the President’s conduct.”  This latter evidence includes McGahn’s behavior at the time, which is consistent with his having been given instructions to have Mueller fired and resisting those orders, as well as the repeated efforts by Trump to have others push for Mueller’s removal for what they themselves regarded as “silly” and insubstantial reasons.  Furthermore, there was Trump’s careful language; he didn’t so much deny to McGahn that he had wanted Mueller removed, but rather that he had used the word “fired.”  He didn’t deny to McGahn that he had suggested that “Mueller has to go,” for example.  Finally, the report states that even if Mr. Trump had sincerely believed that McGahn’s memory was faulty, he knew full well that McGahn was convinced that he had told the truth and that the Times and Post reports were essentially correct, and that he would have no part in refuting them for that reason.  Continuing to push McGahn and even threatening to fire him if he did not make a written statement he believed to be false seems designed to make it difficult for him to testify to what he thought to be the truth.

2.     Nexus to an official proceeding:  When the Times story broke, there was already a grand jury investigating several obstruction-related events, and Trump was even roughly aware of what those were because his personal lawyers had been discussing his possible testimony.  Trump’s attempt to get McGahn to write a letter “for our records” which McGahn thought to be false goes well beyond the sort of “press strategy” he used to try to cover up the Trump Tower meeting between his aides, family and Russian agents.  The only reason to need a written record was to use in possible legal proceedings; therefore, the nexus exists and the written letter Trump desired would have been pointless if it did not.

3.     Intent:  The report cites extensive evidence that Trump’s intention was not to test McGahn’s memory or even to challenge it, but to change his possible testimony regarding Trump’s efforts to undermine and influence the Mueller investigation.  In particular, Trump’s alarm that McGahn had written notes at the time to help ensure his memory remained accurate is damning.  If Trump were interested in the truth, he would have welcomed such attention to accuracy; instead, he was angry because he feared it could create more legal problems for him.  Simply put, the evidence is that he feared the truth and wanted McGahn to cooperate in creating a false story that would protect Mr. Trump from an obstruction-of-justice charge stemming from his efforts to end the Mueller investigation by getting rid of Mueller himself.

            While the initial incident, asking Comey to go easy on Flynn, could be seen as fairly petty, that initial misstep has led to graver acts of obstruction of justice.  At this point, by attempting to force McGahn to testify falsely as to his own memory, Donald Trump appears to be suborning perjury.  Whether this “appears” is ever proven one way or the other depends on whether there is ever an impeachment inquiry or criminal trial at which evidence could be presented by and against Mr. Trump and a fair, open determination made.

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