APRIL 20, 2019
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump and his lawyers decided from the start to fully cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation, gambling in 2017 that they could hasten its end if they gave prosecutors unfettered access to White House aides and other Trump associates.
Instead, the 448-page report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, released on Thursday revealed that investigators used dozens of hours of witness accounts from Mr. Trump’s advisers to paint a detailed and damaging portrait of his efforts to interfere with the investigation.
Now some of the witnesses named in the report, who have departed the White House but rely on access to Mr. Trump for their livelihoods, fear his ire. Some have begun calling current and former administration officials and others in the president’s orbit to seek clues about Mr. Trump’s state of mind, according to four special counsel witnesses who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One called friends and colleagues in the days before the report was released to see whether he could have the Justice Department redact his name from Mr. Mueller’s report, according to two people told of the matter. The idea went nowhere.
In the time it takes to post a tweet critical or dismissive of former aides, the president can jeopardize their status as Trump insiders and galvanize his supporters and surrogates in the news media to line up against anyone who cooperated with the special counsel’s inquiry.
In Washington, lobbying firms and corporations seeking inroads to the administration and advice on how to navigate an unpredictable president who makes policy on Twitter have sought out those who worked for him.
The former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, now a consultant, has fashioned himself as someone who understands Mr. Trump. The former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II is a partner at the law firm Jones Day, which represents Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has written two books that relied heavily on his access to the president.
And even if the witnesses escape Mr. Trump’s wrath for now, they could find themselves in the cross hairs later if they are called to testify on Capitol Hill as Democrats scrutinize the president. The Mueller report provided a road map for congressional Democrats, whose leaders came under increased pressure on Friday to begin impeachment proceedings when Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for moving toward Mr. Trump’s ouster, the first major presidential candidate to do so.
Mr. Mueller’s report laid bare how heavily investigators relied on the people closest to the president. Mr. Priebus, who is cited over 60 times in its pages, believed that Mr. Trump wanted him to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and install a loyalist to oversee the Russia investigation. Mr. Lewandowski described how Mr. Trump also urged him to pressure Mr. Sessions to undermine the special counsel’s investigation.
Handwritten notes by another White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, appear in a key part of the account of potential presidential obstruction of justice, describing an unsuccessful effort by Mr. Trump to persuade Mr. McGahn to dispute statements he made to investigators.
As those unflattering details made their way from the report into accounts by the news media, the first wave of public attacks from Mr. Trump and his legal team bubbled up. Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday that “statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue.”
“Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed,” Mr. Trump said. He did not identify the witnesses he was referring to, but the report said the president had complained to Mr. McGahn for taking notes.
Mr. Trump has privately complained to aides since the report was released about the cooperation of several people, zeroing in on Mr. McGahn, whose interviews were cited 157 times by investigators, more than any of the other roughly 500 witnesses.
The president stewed about the Mueller report to one adviser after another on Friday at his golf course in Florida, dismissing the findings and making clear he was keeping track of who in his orbit had participated in the investigation, according to a person who spoke with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump had not read the document himself, according to people close to him. That means that the fates of the witnesses will depend in the coming days on how they are portrayed on television and on how friends and advisers tell Mr. Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., about the report.
The president has long complained about Mr. McGahn, a longtime Washington lawyer who served as the Trump campaign’s top lawyer and who frequently clashed with Mr. Trump during his two years as White House counsel. Inside the White House, he took the lead on one of Mr. Trump’s most significant accomplishments — stacking the federal courts with conservative judges — but fell out of favor with the president by taking no action to protect him from the Justice Department’s scrutiny.
As the investigation wore on, the president told one aide that Mr. McGahn “leaked to the media to make himself look good” and called him a “lying bastard,” investigators wrote.
Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani attacked Mr. McGahn and the recollections he shared with prosecutors, denying that the president told Mr. McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. Trump was simply venting his frustrations about the investigation, Mr. Giuliani argued.
“All you are getting is one version of events, and the real version of events may be very different,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview.
“I don’t want to go so far as saying he’s lying,” Mr. Giuliani said of Mr. McGahn. “He’s mistaken. He may have a bad recollection.”
Mr. McGahn’s lawyer, William A. Burck, said his client’s account in the report was accurate. “It’s a mystery why Rudy Giuliani feels the need to relitigate incidents the attorney general and deputy attorney general have concluded were not obstruction,” Mr. Burck said in a statement. “Don, nonetheless, appreciates that the president gave him the opportunity to serve as White House counsel and assist him with his signature accomplishments.”
Some of the witnesses and their lawyers responded to Mr. Trump’s anger at the report by noting that it was his decision to cooperate with Mr. Mueller’s investigators. Three former White House aides who were witnesses in the investigation said Mr. Trump and one of his lawyers decided in 2017 not to assert executive privilege and also encouraged aides to cooperate with the special counsel.
Mr. Trump and Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer who encouraged participation, set in motion a course where witnesses had to be forthcoming with investigators or risk charges of perjury. Now, they said, Mr. Trump is faulting them when he could have asserted privilege over his conversations with aides and tried to prevent investigators from learning about them.
The idea that Mr. McGahn is the target of the president’s wrath is complicated by the fact that Mr. McGahn tried to stop the White House from such extensive cooperation. But at the time the president decided to cooperate, Mr. McGahn had fallen out of favor with Mr. Trump, largely because he had refused to fire Mr. Mueller and the president blamed him, in part, for the special counsel’s appointment.
Courtesy/Source: NY Times