Two years later, Democrats got their man.
In closed-door testimony Friday that ran for more than seven hours on Capitol Hill, Don McGahn, former lead counsel to the Trump White House, provided members of the House Judiciary Committee with damning details of his eyewitness view to the former president’s first years in office, including Trump’s efforts to kill an investigation into his dealings with Russia.
The exchange was a long time coming.
House Democrats had subpoenaed McGahn in April 2019, seeking his insights into allegations that members of Trump’s team had colluded with Russian figures during his 2016 presidential campaign — a topic that became the subject of a 22-month investigation by now-former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE.
The Trump White House directed McGahn to defy the subpoena as part of its broad stonewalling of Democratic investigations. The House sued to force McGahn’s testimony, leading to a protracted court battle that ended only last month, when the two sides struck an agreement for the former White House counsel to testify before the House Judiciary Committee behind closed doors.
Friday’s marathon proceeding put McGahn in the hot seat between some of Trump's staunchest Capitol Hill allies — who were incensed that the former White House counsel had rebuffed Trump's entreaties to fire Mueller — and the Judiciary Committee's liberal Democrats, who were equally piqued that McGahn had denied their request to testify before Congress.
At different turns during the daylong interview, Rep. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMore than 200 women, transgender inmates to be transferred from Rikers Island Alabama using COVID funds to build new prisons — is that Biden's vision? Alabama clears plan to use COVID-19 relief funds to build prisons MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, described McGahn as "cooperative," then “somewhat difficult.” Asked to decipher the discrepancy, Nadler was cryptic.
"He's cooperative some of the time," he said.
Nadler indicated that McGahn confirmed elements of the Mueller report alleging that Trump tried to undermine the investigation despite his counsel’s warnings.
“Mr. McGahn was clearly distressed by President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE’s refusal to follow his legal advice, again and again, and he shed new light on several troubling events today,” Nadler said in a statement after McGahn’s interview ended.
It's unclear if McGahn offered any information not already revealed, in the Mueller report or elsewhere. The agreement for McGahn to testify stipulated that his interview would be limited to information contained in or related to Mueller's investigation, and lawmakers in both parties refused to disclose details of their questioning, citing a previous agreement struck with McGahn’s attorneys.
Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanPelosi faces one big final battle Liberals tone down calls to 'defund police' amid GOP attacks The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters MORE (D-Pa.) said that hearing McGahn describe the pressure he was under from Trump to tell then-deputy attorney general Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE to fire Mueller “brought those things to life."
But Dean acknowledged that any power from McGahn’s own words and demeanor recalling his time working for Trump won’t come across the same way to people reading the transcript.
“Maybe you will see from the back-and-forth what some of the demeanor -- I think that will be conveyed just simply from the words on the page. But yeah, my preference would have been in [public] so that all the world could see,” Dean said.
The gathering was sparsely attended: no more than eight lawmakers between the parties were spotted attending. But the two Republicans who were on hand, Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanJan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers House Republican calls on Biden to have plan to counter drug trade in Afghanistan Allies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid MORE (Ohio) and Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGaetz associate asks for another sentencing delay amid cooperation with feds Trial set in alleged M scheme to extort Gaetz family Cheney apologizes to Milley for 'despicable' questioning from fellow Republicans MORE (Fla.), are among Trump’s most ardent supporters. They both emerged from the meeting to defend the former president — and accuse Democrats of "re-litigating" events long settled by Mueller and his team.
“We’ve learned nothing new,” Gaetz said. “The expectation was that Don McGahn would be some sort of essential witness, bringing new information worthy of years of litigation and countless taxpayer dollars spent on this endeavor. And my perception of the events is that Mr. McGahn was unable to identify any unlawful conduct on the part of the president, or any other member of the president's administration.”
Yet, if Democrats did not glean any major new revelations about Trump's time in the White House on Friday, they were claiming at least one victory: the legitimacy of Congress’s authority to compel the cooperation of witnesses, even those in the executive branch.
"It's a vindication of congressional subpoena rights," said Nadler.
Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Political crosscurrents persist for Biden, Dems Trump, the elections and Jan. 6: What you might have missed this week Raskin and Biggs spar over Arizona audit results, with Biggs refusing to say who won the state MORE (D-Md.), another member of the committee, echoed that message, though in a tone of underlying frustration that it required months of court battles to secure McGahn's appearance.
"It should not take two years for Congress to obtain witness testimony it's seeking. That should just be fundamental in our system of government," Raskin said. "But better late than never."
Nadler said that he “look[s] forward to advancing legislation that would allow us to enforce our own subpoenas in a far more timely manner, no matter who holds power in Washington.”
Raskin, a former professor of constitutional law, also had some advice for the judiciary branch about how to avoid such stalemates in the future. Perhaps not surprisingly, his counsel favors Congress's authority.
"I think the courts can be clearer about the fact that everybody owes Congress his or her testimony, unless you're going to involve the Fifth Amendment," he said. "So this is what passes for justice in Washington. It's a long time coming, but it did happen."
A transcript of McGahn's interview will be made public in the coming days as part of the agreement, but the exact timing is unclear. Nadler said a copy will be presented to Trump, the Department of Justice and McGahn’s attorneys.
“And when they all agree, then it will be released,” Nadler said. “I have no idea how long that will take."
Jordan offered a more concrete timeline, saying the release would come “next week.”
The interview, conducted in a sleepy congressional office building amid a long House recess, was the culmination of years of grappling between the executive and legislative branches over the potency of congressional subpoenas.
A district court judge rejected the Trump White House's arguments blocking McGahn’s testimony in 2019, stating in the ruling that "presidents are not kings." But McGahn's testimony was nevertheless delayed amid the appeals process.
House Democrats had yet to launch their first impeachment of Trump when they subpoenaed McGahn, who proved to be a star witness in Mueller's investigation of whether the former president obstructed justice.
House Democrats would eventually impeach Trump twice: the first time in December 2019 for pressuring the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into President BidenJoe BidenMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE, and again earlier this year for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
McGahn ultimately wasn’t a central witness to either of those impeachments. But in the spring of 2019, Democrats were eager to secure his testimony as they were focusing on Mueller’s investigation as a source of potential evidence of impeachable offenses by Trump.
More than two years later, McGahn’s testimony mostly served as partial vindication for Democrats seeking to enforce congressional subpoenas stymied under Trump.
“The Constitution says that we are equal, and that it is important that we have that right to get information when Congress seeks information,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeYouth voting organization launches M registration effort in key battlegrounds The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Gears begin to shift in Congress on stalled Biden agenda Proposed Texas map adds two new congressional districts to Austin, Houston MORE (D-Texas), who attended Friday’s interview with McGahn.
According to Mueller's report, Trump directed McGahn to tell then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US MORE to retract his recusal from the investigation of his campaign's ties to Russian 2016 election interference. McGahn defended Sessions's recusal as proper, to Trump's alleged dismay.
McGahn further testified before the special counsel's office that in June 2017, Trump called him at home and directed him to tell Rosenstein to oust Mueller by claiming the special counsel had conflicts of interest.
"McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request," Mueller's report states. "McGahn considered the president’s request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes."
Trump then called McGahn a second time to follow up on his demand. McGahn "recalled feeling trapped" because he didn't plan to follow through, so he decided to resign.
Then-White House chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies MORE and then-chief strategist Steve BannonStephen (Steve) Kevin BannonBennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump Youngkin dodges saying whether he wants Trump to stump for him Youngkin says supporters 'shouldn't pledge allegiance' to flag allegedly flown at Jan. 6 rally MORE ultimately convinced McGahn to remain in his position. Trump did not ask McGahn whether he had followed through on his demand the next time they saw each other.
Several months later, in January 2018, The New York Times reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to take steps to get Mueller fired. According to the Mueller report, Trump's personal counsel called McGahn's attorney and said the then-president wanted him to publicly deny the report. But McGahn refused.
McGahn ultimately stayed at the White House for another nine months until his departure in October 2018.