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 TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE — as they adopt an aggressive posture in the wake of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerGraham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' House progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller 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.

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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 progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment WHIP LIST: Democrats who support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump 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 BarrThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan House Intelligence enjoys breakthrough with Justice Department Schiff blasts Trump's 'un-American' order to intel agencies to cooperate with Barr probe 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 RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package 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 NadlerDemocrats are running out of stunts to pull from impeachment playbook Trump asks if Nadler will look into Clinton's 'deleted and acid washed' emails Trump tweets conservative commentator's criticism of FBI director 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Trump-Pelosi fight threatens drug pricing talks 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 CicillineJustice to recommend blocking T-Mobile-Sprint merger: report The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment 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 PriebusNadler subpoenas Hope Hicks and McGahn's former aide for testimony Mueller didn't want Comey memos released out of fear Trump, others would change stories Forget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations 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.