House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Friday that a nearly eight-hour interview with former President Donald Trump's top White House lawyer “shed new light on several troubling events" during his presidency, though it was unclear how Democrats would use the information long after investigations into Trump's ties to Russia have concluded.
The closed-door interview with Don McGahn, which came two years after House Democrats originally sought his testimony, was originally part of Democrats' efforts to investigate whether Trump tried to obstruct Justice Department investigations into his 2016 presidential campaign. House Democrats sued after McGahn defied an April 2019 subpoena on Trump’s orders.
McGahn appeared Friday after an agreement was reached in court to sit for a transcribed interview behind closed doors, with his answers limited to information that had already been publicly released in former special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Trump and Russia. That report also came out in April 2019.
Even if the interview unearths new information, Democrats made clear that it was primarily for history, and to set a precedent that executive branch officials must comply with congressional subpoenas. Nadler said in a statement after the interview that it was “a great victory for congressional oversight,” although two years had been too long to wait.
Since Democrats first subpoenaed McGahn, Trump was impeached twice by the House and acquitted twice by the Senate. Neither impeachment centered on the Russia investigations, in which Mueller pointedly did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice but also did not recommend prosecuting him, citing Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president.
Still, Mueller’s report quoted extensively from interviews with McGahn, who described the Republican president’s efforts to stifle the investigation.
In a statement released after the interview, which lasted almost eight hours, Nadler said he could not comment on McGahn's testimony, but said “McGahn was clearly distressed by President Trump’s refusal to follow his legal advice, again and again, and he shed new light on several troubling events today.”
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Nadler said a transcript of the interview would be available “at a later date,” as laid out in the court agreement.
At a break in the interview earlier, Nadler said McGahn was being “somewhat difficult” at times. While the questioning was led by staff, a handful of members of both parties attended, including Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Gaetz, a close ally of Trump, said near the end of the meeting that “we’ve learned nothing new.”
As White House counsel, McGahn had an insider’s view of many of the episodes Mueller and his team examined for potential obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation. McGahn proved a pivotal — and damning — witness against Trump, with his name mentioned hundreds of times in the text of the Mueller report and its footnotes.
McGahn described to investigators the president’s repeated efforts to choke off the probe and directives he said he received from the president that unnerved him. He recounted how Trump had demanded that he contact then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to order him to unrecuse himself from the Russia investigation.
He also said Trump had implored him to tell the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod Rosenstein, to remove Mueller from his position because of perceived conflicts of interest — and, after that episode was reported in the media, to publicly and falsely deny that demand had ever been made.
McGahn also described the circumstances leading up to Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director, including the president’s insistence on including in the termination letter the fact that Comey had reassured Trump that he was not personally under investigation.
And he was present for a critical conversation early in the Trump administration, when Sally Yates, just before she was fired as acting attorney general as a holdover Obama appointee, relayed concerns to McGahn about new national security adviser Michael Flynn. She raised the possibility that Flynn's conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — and his subsequent interview by the FBI — left him vulnerable to blackmail.
Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, a member of the committee who attended the interview, said McGahn brought to life “the chaos that must have been the White House at that time, with a president in a panic over special counsel Muller’s investigation.”
She said it was a “good day for democracy” that McGahn finally fulfilled his obligation to testify.
Trump’s Justice Department fought the testimony even after District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in 2019 rejected arguments that Trump's close advisers were immune from congressional subpoena. President Joe Biden's administration helped negotiate the final agreement.