Trump Reacts To Report On White House Counsel Cooperation With Mueller

Aug 19, 2018
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

We're going to start the program today with politics because President Trump is reacting strongly and angrily to a report in The New York Times that Don McGahn, who is the White House counsel - we should note not one of Trump's personal attorneys, the White House counsel - that Don McGahn has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The story suggests McGahn might be talking because he's worried that Trump might be setting him up to take the blame for any possible obstruction. President Trump responded in a tweet storm from Bedminster, N.J., where he's been spending the weekend. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now to explain all of this. Hello, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

SINGH: All right. So let's briefly recap this New York Times story for our audience. What did it say? And what are the implications of the story?

KEITH: You got at the main headline there - that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, has spent some 30 hours, according to The New York Times, talking to the investigators who are part of Robert Mueller's special counsel team, and that - according to this article, felt that he needed to basically speak for himself to avoid being thrown under the bus by the president. I asked McGahn's attorney about this, and he gave me a statement. His name is William Burke. He says, President Trump through counsel declined to assert any privilege over Mr. McGahn's testimony. So Mr. McGahn answered the special counsel's team's questions fulsomely and honestly as any person interviewed by federal investigators must. The upshot here is that the president's lawyers didn't stop McGahn from talking to the special counsel team - didn't say, he's an attorney and we have attorney-client privilege - didn't exert executive privilege either.

SINGH: Yeah, and he's basically - President Trump has basically been saying as much in his tweets.

KEITH: That's correct. And there have been a lot of them. I will - there were a couple that stand out. He says, the failing New York Times wrote a fake piece today implying that because White House counsel Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the special counsel, he must be a John Dean-type rat. But I allowed him and all others to testify. I didn't have to. I have nothing to hide. I guess this is the point at which we explain who John Dean is.

SINGH: Yeah because one thing that stands out, like you said, is Trump's reference to John Dean, who was President Nixon's White House counsel during Watergate who ultimately cooperated with prosecutors to Nixon's detriment, as you know.

KEITH: Yes, exactly. And one thing that we learned from the Watergate experience was that - or what was settled by it is that the White House counsel represents the presidency, not the person. The White House counsel is not the president's personal lawyer. In fact, the president's personal lawyer - or one of many of them, Rudy Giuliani - was on "Meet The Press" today. And he insisted in that appearance that the president means it when he says that he encouraged McGahn to testify. He says that was the legal strategy of President Trump's previous legal team. And Giuliani says that that was the strategy because they thought that it would get the investigation over with more quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

RUDY GIULIANI: I guess if I had known the outcome, that Mueller would not conclude it quickly, that this really wasn't an attempt in good faith to try to work out some resolution of this, I might have chosen a different strategy. I'm pretty sure they would have. But be that as it may, it puts us in a very strong position to say we don't - they don't need to question them.

SINGH: So while McGahn has been meeting with the special counsel Robert Mueller, President Trump's lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, still have not agreed to when or how the president himself might be questioned, right?

KEITH: That's right. And that's sort of what Giuliani was getting at at the very end of that clip, where he says, well, we've got a pretty good case that we don't need to talk to him. And what he means is that Giuliani and the president's other lawyers really don't want him to talk to Mueller. The president himself has sort of hedged on that and has indicated that he'd like to if they can work it out. But they've been trying to work this out for months and months and months. And it's seeming less and less likely as time goes on. And one reason that Giuliani told "Meet The Press" that he didn't want to have the president testify is because he considers it to be a perjury trap.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

GIULIANI: And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he's going to tell the truth, that he shouldn't worry - well, that's so silly because it's somebody's version of the truth, not the truth. He didn't have a conversation...

CHUCK TODD: Truth is truth. I don't mean to go, like...

GIULIANI: No, it isn't truth. Truth isn't truth.

KEITH: So that has gotten a lot of reaction understandably. I think what Giuliani was trying to say is that the president may say one thing. James Comey, the former FBI director, may say something else. What is truth anyway?

SINGH: So all this is happening while we are still following Mueller's prosecution of Paul Manafort. That's Trump's former campaign chairman. Where does that stand?

KEITH: It is in the hands of a jury. They recessed on Friday and have taken the weekend off understandably. They resume on Monday. We don't know how long it will take, but there are a lot of counts that are being considered and just piles of evidence that were presented to the jury that they are now trying to sort through and make a decision about whether he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty.

SINGH: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you very much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.