WASHINGTON – White House counsel Don McGahn, who had incredible access to President Donald Trump and some of his most controversial dealings, opened up to special counsel Robert Mueller in a series of extensive interviews.
McGahn's cooperation with Mueller was extraordinary and curious as the investigation includes possible obstruction of justice by the president and could have been protected in part by executive privilege. Trump waived his privileges, hoping the transparency would quicken the pace of Mueller's investigation and thus, put an end to a query that has put a cloud over his presidency.
It's been more than two years since the Russian investigation started and there's little clue when it could conclude.
The curiosity surrounding McGahn's interviews peaked Saturday following a report in The New York Times that revealed McGahn's strategy could have accompanied a thought that the president was attempting to pin any possible criminal charges on him.
McGahn's interviews with investigators spanned about 30 hours in total, a person familiar with McGahn’s contact with the special counsel’s office told USA TODAY.
The source did not elaborate on the contents of his discussions with Mueller’s team, but The New York Times said McGahn took Mueller's team through Trump's comments and actions in some of the most controversial topics that have surrounded the White House.
McGahn reportedly told investigators what he knew about the president's role in the firing of former FBI director James Comey, Trump's repeated criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his role in the Russia investigation before the president hired outside counsel to deal with the matter, The Times reported, citing a dozen anonymous sources.
Trump confirmed that he instructed McGahn to "fully cooperate" with Mueller's team. He also alluded to other members of his staff being interviewed.
"I allowed White House Counsel Don McGahn, and all other requested members of the White House Staff, to fully cooperate with the Special Counsel," Trump wrote Saturday evening. "In addition we readily gave over one million pages of documents. Most transparent in history. No Collusion, No Obstruction. Witch Hunt!"
John Dowd, one of Trump’s former outside attorneys who represented the president on matters related to the Russia inquiry, characterized McGahn as a “strong witness for the president.”
He said that McGahn spent “an extensive amount of time” with Mueller’s team.
“He spent a lot time, because there was a lot to go through,” Dowd said, adding that the president has “done nothing wrong.”
“And there was nothing wrong” with McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller, Dowd said.
Dowd and Ty Cobb, who both no longer represent the president in the Mueller inquiry, are said to have been behind the strategy of fully cooperating with Mueller, The Times reported.
McGahn's testimony would almost certainly be key in any possible obstruction of justice charge laid out by Mueller, as he had incredible access to Trump, his associates, private conversations and the underbelly of the White House during many of the incidents Mueller and his team are investigating.
McGahn's attorney, William Burck, said in a statement to USA TODAY that his client answered the questions from Mueller's team both "fulsomely and honestly" and added Trump declined to claim attorney-client privilege.
"President Trump, through counsel, declined to assert any privilege over Mr. McGahn’s testimony, so Mr. McGahn answered the Special Counsel team’s questions fulsomely and honestly, as any person interviewed by federal investigators must," Burck said.
McGahn has been both privately and publicly wrapped up in the ongoing saga since Trump's move to the White House.
He reportedly threatened to quit when Trump posed the idea of firing Mueller last year. He and others convinced Trump that firing Mueller would be a bad idea and eventually Trump pledged to work with the special counsel's office. Officials also told USA TODAY at the time that Trump was well aware of the political fallout from a dismissal of the special counsel.
McGahn and other Trump administration officials also had sought to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions to remain in control of the investigation into Russia's election interference, even as the attorney general faced mounting pressure to recuse himself, two officials familiar with the matter told USA TODAY in January.
The disclosures raised questions about President Trump's personal involvement in deterring the federal investigation into Russia's election interference.
Mueller had been aware of the contacts by McGahn and others for months, USA TODAY previously reported.
The contacts were made amid a chaotic whirl of events leading up to Sessions's ultimate March 2017 recusal. During that time, McGahn reached out to Sessions to indicate that he did not have to disqualify himself after failing to disclose his own contacts with Russians during the campaign. But it wasn't just him, the sources said, noting that other administration officials offered similar accounts.
The president has publicly expressed his frustrations with Sessions' choice to recuse himself.
McGahn was also on an April phone call with Sessions where he was told that Sessions would resign if Trump dismissed Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller and his team.
Sessions reportedly told McGahn that he would consider quitting if Trump fired Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.
At the time, Sessions was concerned Trump was close to dismissing Rosenstein because the president was furious about the FBI raid on the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
McGahn's decision to speak with Mueller's team reportedly followed a decision by Trump's outside legal team, the Times reported.
The newspaper reported McGahn felt this could be a trick and feared the president and his team of lawyers might be setting him up to take the blame for any possible criminal charges that arise.
This was the case during Richard Nixon's presidency. Former White House Counsel John Dean ended up cooperating with investigators, becoming a star witness after fearing Nixon was setting him up to be a scapegoat in the Watergate scandal.
Dean, on CNN Saturday afternoon, said he thought McGahn was doing the right thing cooperating with Mueller's team.
He said the information McGahn has would likely be "invaluable" to investigators.
Contributing: David Jackson, Will Cummings