Did Don McGahn lie to Robert Mueller — or did he just assume Donald Trump wanted Robert Mueller fired? Trump floated both of those possibilities to George Stephanopoulos in the latest clip featured by Good Morning America from their one-on-one interview. “I was never going to fire Mueller,” Trump declared, “I never suggested firing Mueller,” and his former White House counsel’s testimony “doesn’t matter”:
.@ABC NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Pres. Trump tells @GStephanopoulos he never suggested firing special counsel Robert Mueller—and what ex-White House counsel Don McGahn told Mueller “doesn’t matter”. https://t.co/UVWL3BjvLg pic.twitter.com/EwKGTnQ0kJ
— Good Morning America (@GMA) June 14, 2019
“Why would [McGahn] lie under oath?” Stephanopoulos later asked.
“Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer,” Trump said. “Or he believed it because I would constantly tell anybody that would listen — including you, including the media — that Robert Mueller was conflicted. Robert Mueller had a total conflict of interest.”
“And has to go?” Stephanopoulos followed up.
“I didn’t say that,” Trump insisted.
This exchange will get plenty of buzz today, but it’s actually not all that significant. Democrats have made a lot out of this part of the Mueller report, but even if Trump told McGahn that Mueller “had to go,” it’s not obstruction. For one thing, Mueller didn’t go — no one fired him, and he completed his work. For another, Trump had the legal authority to fire him, although that might have been obstruction — if a corrupt intent could be proven. All that actually happened, even if one believes the version in the Mueller report (and it’s fairly believable, given Trump’s mercurial nature), is that Trump had discussions with advisers that ended up going nowhere.
This doesn’t amount to obstruction. It does demonstrate why executive privilege exists, however. Presidents need to have the room for wide-ranging discussions in the White House in order to develop good policy and, well, to keep from violating the law. To use a historical analogy: It’s not a crime for a president to cry out Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest? — at least not until four aides show up and bash in the head of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, you have a problem.
Returning to the interview, Stephanopoulos tries to get Trump to answer why he refused to answer any questions on obstruction. Trump said he answered questions about what was supposed to be the issue in the special-counsel probe, and calls Stephanopoulos a “little wise guy” for pressing the matter:
“George, you’re being a little wise guy, OK — which is, you know, typical for you,” Trump shot back. “Just so you understand. Very simple. It’s very simple. There was no crime. There was no collusion. The big thing’s collusion. Now, there’s no collusion. That means they set — it was a setup, in my opinion, and I think it’s going to come out.”
Trump doesn’t mention it, but he was under no legal obligation to answer any questions. Politically, of course, it would have looked bad, but legally a president has the same rights to remain silent as any other American. His answer makes it clear that he saw the expansion into obstruction by Mueller as illegitimate, but even apart from that, as a kind of perjury trap … which it almost certainly was.