Former White House counsel Don McGahn testified to Congress last week that he felt "trapped" when then President Donald Trump asked him to help engineer the removal of the special counsel Robert Mueller during the Russia investigation.
McGahn was a central witness in Mueller's inquiry into whether Trump obstructed justice as part of the Russia probe. Last week, in closed-door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, McGahn recounted what it was like when Trump called him in 2017 and asked him to direct then acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
Mueller's report said that after Trump made his demands clear, McGahn told the president that he would look into it. Sarah Istel, the judiciary committee's lead counsel, asked McGahn about those comments last week.
"'McGahn said he told the president that he would see what he could do,'" Istel said, reading from Mueller's final report. "Do you recall saying that to the president?"
"I did say that, yeah," McGahn replied.
"Did you intend to see what you could do?" she asked.
"No," he said.
"Then why did you say that to the president?" Istel asked.
"I was trying to get off the phone," McGahn said.
Istel later asked McGahn whether he felt concerned about his own potential liability and whether his involvement in orchestrating Mueller's removal could make him a target of the obstruction investigation.
McGahn said he was, adding, "I was concerned about, if I were going to reach out to Rod, Rod's reaction, how it would be perceived after the fact, and that it would cause potential eventualities to occur that would not be in anybody's interests, including my own."
"To answer the question you asked before, I did not want to insert myself into something that would cause me to be my own — that would compromise my own ability to remain as counsel," he said.
Istel also asked McGahn how he felt after he got off the phone the second time Trump asked him to order Rosenstein to remove Mueller.
"Oof," McGahn replied. "Frustrated, perturbed, trapped. Many emotions." He also said he felt "concerned."
When Istel asked him to elaborate why he felt that way, McGahn replied, "Felt trapped because the president had the same conversation with me repeatedly, and I thought I conveyed my views and offered my advice, and we were still having the same conversation."
He continued: "And I figured, at some point, he'd want to have that conversation again. And, at that point, I wasn't exactly sure how — how to navigate that one, so I felt that I was trapped."
"We kept having the same conversation, so he wasn't taking the answer the first time or subsequent times," McGahn said.
Indeed, as Mueller's final report said, McGahn felt so cornered by Trump's repeated demand that he decided to resign.
"McGahn spoke with the President twice and understood the directive the same way both times, making it unlikely that he misheard or misinterpreted the President's request," the report said. "In response to that request, McGahn decided to quit. He called his lawyer, drove to the White House, packed up his office, prepared to submit a resignation letter with his chief of staff, told [then-White House Chief of Staff Reince] Preibus that the President had asked him to 'do crazy shit.'"
McGahn ultimately stayed on as White House counsel but resigned in October 2018, six months before Mueller's report was released to the public.