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Why Trump’s tweets about Don McGahn and the Mueller report could backfire

Trump sought to refute one of the Mueller report’s most damaging revelations. He created new problems for himself in the process.

President Trump Hosts Cabinet Meeting At The White House
McGahn sits behind Trump during a White House event last October.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report about his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election stops short of accusing President Donald Trump of crimes, the president is obviously not happy with the picture it paints of him as someone who repeatedly tried to obstruct an investigation of his campaign, only to be thwarted by his own aides refusing to carry out legally dubious orders.

So on Thursday morning, Trump tried to refute on Twitter one of the report’s most damaging revelations — that he tried to get then-White House counsel Don McGahn to order Mueller’s firing via Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just a month after Mueller was appointed. (McGahn refused.) But in the process, Trump gave House Democrats yet another reason to bring McGahn in for a congressional hearing.

Over the course of two tweets, Trump pushed back on McGahn’s testimony to Mueller that Trump asked him to get the Department of Justice to fire Mueller, and worked in a gratuitous shot at the media in the process.

“As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so,” Trump wrote. “If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself. Nevertheless, [...] Mueller was NOT fired and was respectfully allowed to finish his work on what I, and many others, say was an illegal investigation (there was no crime), headed by a Trump hater who was highly conflicted, and a group of 18 VERY ANGRY Democrats. DRAIN THE SWAMP!”

Trump’s claim that “the Fake News Media” has “incorrectly reported” what the Mueller report says about his dealings with McGahn is false — Mueller’s report actually confirms a report from the New York Times about this. Trump is in fact disputing the conclusions of a government document based on an interview with a lawyer who worked for him.

What the Mueller report says about McGahn

McGahn is one of the Mueller report’s central figures. He’s cited more than any other witness in the document, and his testimony provides some of the starkest examples of how Trump repeatedly tried to impede investigations of his campaign.

McGahn told Mueller that in June 2017 — one month after Mueller’s appointment — the president reacted to reports that Mueller was investigating him for obstruction of justice by calling him at home and “direct[ing] him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflict of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”

In January 2018, the New York Times reported that Trump ordered McGahn to have the Justice Department fire Mueller the previous June. According to what McGahn told Mueller, Trump reacted to the report by asking McGahn to fabricate evidence that could be used to refute it.

“The President then directed [then-White House official Rob] Porter to tell McGahn to create a record to make clear that the President never directed McGahn to fire the Special Counsel,” the report says. “McGahn shrugged off the request, explaining that the media reports were true.”

During a subsequent White House meeting with McGahn, Trump disputed the Times’ reporting on semantic grounds. From the Mueller report:

The President asked McGahn, “Did I say the word ‘fire’?” McGahn responded, “What you said is, ‘Call Rod [Rosenstein], tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.’ The President responded, “I never said that.” The President said he merely wanted to McGahn to raise the conflicts issue with Rosenstein and leave it to him to decide what to do. McGahn told the President he did not understand the conversation that way and instead had heard, “Call Rod. There are conflicts. Mueller has to go.” The President asked McGahn whether he would “do a correction,” and McGahn said no. McGahn thought the President was testing his mettle to see how committed McGahn was to what happened. [Then-White House chief of staff John] Kelly described the meeting as “a little tense.”

So it’s basically Trump’s word versus McGahn’s. But another part of McGahn’s testimony about his meeting with Trump speaks to why McGahn has more credibility, Trump’s propensity for lying aside:

The President also asked McGahn in the meeting why he had told Special Counsel’s Office investigators that the President had told him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn responded that he had to and that his conversations with the President were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The President then asked, “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a “real lawyer” and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The President said, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”

Much as he did during his January 2018 meeting with McGahn, Trump could defend the tweets he posted on Thursday on semantic grounds. After all, McGahn testified that Trump asked him to order the Justice Department to fire Mueller, not that Trump asked him directly “to fire Robert Mueller,” as Trump wrote. In short, read carefully, Trump’s tweets aren’t necessarily inconsistent with the Mueller report, even if the impression they create is at odds with what McGahn told Mueller.

Democrats are trying to get to the bottom of it. The White House is trying to prevent them from doing so.

Trump’s tweets about McGahn give House Democrats yet another reason to bring the former White House counsel in for a hearing in hopes of getting to the bottom of the president’s attempts to obstruct the Mueller investigation. The House Judiciary Committee has already subpoenaed McGahn to testify next month and turn over documents.

There’s just one problem — as my colleague Dylan Scott detailed on Wednesday, the White House has signaled it will fight subpoenas issued by House Democrats that try to compel former aides like McGahn to testify. Trump himself told reporters on Thursday that “we’re fighting all the subpoenas.”

The extent of the Trump administration’s uncooperativeness with subpoenas is unprecedented, and it’s unclear how the battle will play out in court. But what is clear is that Trump is concerned with how McGahn portrayed him, and is trying to push back.

On Monday, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt reported that Trump believes his political future actually depends on discrediting the account of his conduct McGahn gave to Mueller.

“Trump has privately complained about the accounts, particularly the ones given by Mr. McGahn, and has said the only way to protect himself from impeachment is to attack Mr. Mueller and Mr. McGahn,” according to the Times.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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