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White House counsel Don McGahn is worried Trump’s setting him up on obstruction — so he’s talking a lot to Mueller

According to the New York Times, McGahn is cooperating “extensively” with special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction of justice inquiry.

White House counsel Don McGahn after a meeting in Washington, DC in July 2018. He’s reportedly speaking at length with Robert Mueller out of concern he’s the fall guy for Trump.
White House counsel Don McGahn after a meeting in Washington, DC, in July 2018. He’s reportedly speaking at length with Robert Mueller out of concern that he’s the fall guy for Trump.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Donald Trump may not be speaking to special counsel Robert Mueller, but White House counsel Don McGahn has. At length. Because he fears Trump may be setting him up to take the fall on potential obstruction of justice and that he’d then wind up like John Dean, former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon who eventually flipped: in prison.

Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times reported on Saturday that McGahn has taken part in at least three voluntary interviews totaling 30 hours with Mueller’s team of investigators who have been looking into the Russia probe over the past nine months. He’s discussed a wide range of matters, including the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, the ouster of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump’s public and private griping about Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The report appears to have incensed Trump, who raged about it on Twitter on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.

According to the Times, two of Trump’s original lawyers, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, devised an “open-book strategy” for Trump when the Mueller investigation first started, the idea being that if Trump did nothing wrong, as he insisted, then why not be as cooperative as possible? McGahn was reportedly dubious of the plan but went along, and when the special counsel’s office asked to interview him last year, he was “surprised” but complied when Trump and his lawyers gave him the go-ahead.

The report describes McGahn and his lawyer, William Burck, as “stunned” at the Trump team’s willingness for him to talk to Mueller. So much so that they developed a theory that he’s being set up:

Mr. McGahn and his lawyer, William A. Burck, could not understand why Mr. Trump was so willing to allow Mr. McGahn to speak freely to the special counsel and feared Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction, according to people close to him. So he and Mr. Burck devised their own strategy to do as much as possible to cooperate with Mr. Mueller to demonstrate that Mr. McGahn did nothing wrong.

Schmidt and Haberman draw parallels between McGahn and Dean, who served as White House counsel under the Nixon administration and was a central figure in the Watergate scandal. He took part in Nixon’s cover-up of the Democratic Party headquarters break-in and eventually flipped on his boss after being fired. He eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after striking a deal with the prosecution and received a prison sentence.

“This sure has echoes of Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, who in 1973 feared that Nixon was setting him up as a fall guy for Watergate and secretly gave investigators crucial help while still in his job,” historian Michael Beschloss told the Times.

Dean reacted to the story on Twitter. He said he believes McGahn is “doing right” by cooperating and compared Nixon and Trump. “Nixon, generally very competent, bungled and botched his handling of Watergate,” he wrote. “Trump, a total incompetent, is bungling and botching his handling of Russiagate.”

The publication also reports that it’s not clear that Trump “appreciates the extent to which” McGahn has cooperated with Mueller and that the president has wrongly believed that McGahn would act as a personal lawyer for him. McGahn views his role as a protector of the presidency, not Trump.

That McGahn is speaking with special counsel Mueller is not new information, but the extent to which he’s cooperating — and his potential motivations for doing so — are. The report also details a distant relationship between Trump and McGahn, who has overseen Trump’s judicial appointment and deregulatory push at the White House but also appears not to be overly warm with the president himself.

According to the Times, Trump and McGahn rarely speak, and when they do, chief of staff John Kelly and other advisers are usually present. Trump questions McGahn’s loyalty. McGahn, behind his back, calls the president “King Kong.”

Trump’s not very happy about this one

The Times report must have struck a chord with Trump, who fired off multiple increasingly angry tweets about it on Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday, Trump said he allowed McGahn and all other “requested members” of the White House staff to cooperate with Mueller. “Most transparent in history,” he wrote.

On Sunday, he criticized the Times in a string of tweets, saying the story was “fake” and claiming he had allowed McGahn and others to speak to Mueller in an effort to be transparent “so that this Rigged and Disgusting Witch Hunt can come to a close.”

Trump took specific aim at Haberman and Schmidt, whom he called “Fake reporters,” and held them up as an example of why the media has become the “Enemy of the People,” as he often claims. (It’s not the first time he’s attacked Haberman specifically.)

He also claimed that some members of the media had called him to apologize — it’s unclear who that would be — and made a reference to the Times’s “disgusting new Board member.” It’s not clear whether he was referring to the Times’s board of directors, which both publisher A.G. Sulzberger and investor John Rogers, Jr. joined this year, or its editorial board, which tech writer Sarah Jeong was named to at the start of the month. (Right-wing activists dug up some of Jeong’s old tweets when she was named and alleged she was racist against white people.)

The Times stood by its report and tweeted out a link encouraging readers to take a look at it on Sunday.

Update: Story updated with Trump’s tweets on McGahn and John Dean’s reaction.