Former White House Counsel Donald McGahn was questioned for hours Friday by House Judiciary Committee Democrats about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether then-President Donald Trump tried to head it off.
Few explosive or timely new revelations were expected from the closed-door interview. But McGahn’s appearance marks the end of a two-year legal standoff over whether an executive branch official can be forced to testify to Congress, even if his appearance does not provide either side with a clear-cut legal victory.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, and other panel members from both parties were limited in what they could ask McGahn under an “agreement in principle” worked out among McGahn’s lawyers, President Joe Biden’s Justice Department, and House legal counsel.
“I think he’s being somewhat difficult,” Nadler said, declining to go into details about what topics were discussed. “But you’ll see that when the transcript comes out.”
A transcript of McGahn’s testimony is supposed to be publicly released within seven days. But Nadler said he was unsure when it would be public because it first will be reviewed by lawyers for the Justice Department, Trump and McGahn.
Committee Democrats and Republicans are taking turns questioning McGahn, in one-hour turns a side. Nadler said six or seven Democrats were in the room, along with two Judiciary Committee Republicans, ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida.
A Republican official with knowledge of the interview said the questioning so far had not revealed new information. But Nadler said earlier that the former White House counsel’s appearance “vindicates congressional subpoena rights.”
McGahn left his job as White House counsel in October 2018 and is now a partner at the law firm of Jones Day. He did not return a telephone call to his office on Thursday.
Justice Department lawyers were expected to be in the room as he undergoes questioning, and can assert their own objections on behalf of the executive branch.
The battle over McGahn’s testimony has centered on the publicly released portions of his testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, some of it describing how Trump allegedly tried to interfere with or quash Mueller’s inquiry, including by trying to fire Mueller himself.
McGahn is described in the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election as a witness to episodes that prompted Mueller to later say that he could not clear Trump of obstruction of justice. House Democrats are expected to press him for more details of those incidents, detailed in the second part of Mueller’s redacted report.
For instance, according to the report, Trump asked McGahn to tell the then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Mueller himself has conflicts that would prevent him from serving as special counsel. McGahn is reported to have said he took this to mean Trump was asking him to remove Mueller from the investigation.
But under the ground rules for Friday’s interview, McGahn can only be questioned about “the publicly available portions of the Mueller report and events that the publicly available portions of the Mueller report indicate involved Mr. McGahn.” He can also be asked whether the report accurately reflected his statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and whether he was truthful in making those statements.
McGahn will not be able to assert executive privilege regarding these questions. But Justice Department lawyers can do so, and the committee will retain its right to challenge any such claim.
Nadler, in a statement after the deal for McGahn’s testimony was announced last month, said Trump’s determination to fight “all of the subpoenas” aimed at his administration began “a dangerous campaign of unprecedented obstruction.”
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