Dems plot aggressive post-Mueller moves, beginning with McGahn

Dems plot aggressive post-Mueller moves, beginning with McGahn
© Greg Nash

House Democrats have zeroed in on former White House counsel Don McGahn — a witness whose testimony could antagonize President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE — as they adopt an aggressive posture in the wake of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s report.

The House Judiciary Committee has demanded that McGahn appear in a public hearing before it on May 21, which would give Democrats an opportunity to draw out unflattering details about Trump and his White House.

McGahn is viewed as a key witness who could shed light on obstruction of justice allegations against Trump. Mueller did not find Trump obstructed justice, but he also did not exonerate him on the issue.


The former White House counsel offered extensive testimony to Mueller’s team and is featured prominently in the report’s examination of nearly a dozen episodes of potential obstruction of justice by Trump, including one instance in which Trump is described as directing McGahn to have the special counsel removed.

Publicly, Trump has shown frustration with McGahn as a result of his cooperation in Mueller’s investigation. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani has attacked McGahn’s credibility, provoking barbs with McGahn’s own counsel.

Democrats say they want to hear McGahn’s unvarnished story.

“I would like to hear him describe in his own words the president's order to get the special counsel fired,” Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinHouse Democrats launch probe into NIH and FBI suspecting Chinese Americans of espionage Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg do battle in New Hampshire MORE (D-Md.) told The Hill in a phone interview Tuesday.  “We are being confronted with a pattern of lawlessness and spectacular disrespect for the rule of law. McGahn is in a unique position to describe the actual dynamic of presidential misconduct.”

Republicans and the White House are accusing Democrats of playing politics.

“They don’t want to get to the truth,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters Tuesday on the North Lawn driveway. “They want to get to this president.”

The investigations also run the risk of extending into the 2020 campaign cycle and irritating voters already showing some signs of Mueller fatigue.

“The risk for Democrats is having these hearings push far into the presidential cycle, and they’ll end up saddling our presidential candidates with tremendous responsibility, not just to promote their own policies but to defend their colleagues that will be conducting these hearings and responding to things coming out of them,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.

McGahn is one of several figures Congress wants to talk to. The Washington Post also reported Tuesday evening that the White House plans to fight the subpoena, which would likely set up an explosive tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches. 

Democrats also hope to bring in Mueller for hearings, and are expected to hear from Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Key juror questioned in Roger Stone case MORE, whom they have criticized for mishandling the release of Mueller’s report.

It’s unclear how damaging McGahn’s public testimony would be, or whether he might offer new details not included on Mueller’s report.

According to the report, McGahn refused Trump’s appeal in June 2017 to remove Mueller. McGahn feared that a firing would have triggered “another Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to former President Richard Nixon’s firing of top Justice Department officials amid the Watergate scandal.

One former White House official who worked under Trump doubted McGahn would spurn the president in public testimony, despite his rocky departure from the administration last fall.

“Democrats are hell-bent on inflicting as much political damage as possible on the president, and that’s what they’ll be looking to do with any former official before the committee,” the former White House official said. “McGahn did not end his tenure on a positive note and the president did pull his business from Jones Day, but I would be surprised if McGahn did anything to further the Democrats’ political objectives.”

Still, the testimony could generate a series of unfortunate headlines for Trump.

“I think similar to [former Trump attorney Michael] Cohen’s testimony several months ago, it will dominate the nation’s attention in an unhelpful way to Republicans,” said Alex Conant, former communications director for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign. “Trump went to North Korea and still couldn’t get Cohen off the front pages.”

“I think McGahn would be an even bigger deal,” Conant said. “If McGahn says on TV what he apparently told Mueller in a conference room, that could potentially be damaging to the president in a way the Mueller report has not been.” 

There is also a real possibility that the White House could seek to block or limit McGahn’s testimony by exerting executive privilege, which Gidley did not rule out when speaking to reporters Tuesday. McGahn’s attorney did not return multiple requests for comment on the subpoena, which was issued Monday evening.

The White House has taken a decidedly combative stance on other congressional probes, including instructing a former official to evade a subpoenaed appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday in the panel’s probe into alleged failures in the administration’s issuance of security clearances.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms Trump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify MORE (D-N.Y.) unveiled the subpoena for McGahn to produce documents sought by his committee in its investigation into alleged obstruction and abuses of power by Trump and members of his inner circle by May 7.

Nadler also demanded his public testimony, describing the former White House counsel as a “critical witness to many of the alleged instances of obstruction of justice and other misconduct described in the Mueller report.”

The announcement immediately proceeded a Democratic caucus phone call during which House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez: Trump would 'never' say to her face some of the shots he takes at her on Twitter Oversight Committee room to be dedicated to late Rep. Elijah Cummings Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response MORE (D-Calif.) sought to tamp down conversations about impeachment but encouraged committee chairs to press forward on their respective probes.

It also came days after Nadler, unsatisfied with Barr’s accommodations, subpoenaed the Justice Department for Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence.

Republicans accused Democrats of tossing aside the law in order to relitigate the special counsel investigation for political purposes; one Republican aide argued Tuesday that McGahn’s communications with Trump would likely be covered by attorney-client privilege.

“These legal protections and regulations seem to be falling victim to the Democrats’ desire to relitigate the special counsel investigation,” the GOP aide said.

Democrats, however, appear undeterred by criticism, vowing to push forward on what they view as legitimate oversight investigations.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineTrump's intel moves spark Democratic fury Trump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Hillicon Valley: US hits Huawei with new charges | Judge orders Pentagon to halt 'war cloud' work amid Amazon challenge | IRS removes guidance on Fortnite game currency MORE (D-R.I.) on Tuesday suggested to The Hill that the committee may call other officials cited in Mueller’s report to testify. The committee voted along party lines to authorize Nadler to subpoena McGahn and other former White House officials, including former chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusMick Mulvaney's job security looks strong following impeachment CNN's Harwood on Trump acquittal speech: 'This is somebody in deep psychological distress' Reince Priebus joins CBS News as political analyst MORE, in early April.

“I think we are going to hear from a number of witnesses who furnished information to the special counsel to provide us with more context of the events and specifically describe for us the actions of the president and obviously to produce materials relevant to our oversight responsibilities,” Cicilline said. 

“The president has been trying to undermine this investigation from the beginning, and constantly refers to ‘[13] Angry Democrats.’ It turns out much of the most damaging evidence against the president came from members of his own administration which is very revealing,” Cicilline added.