Backstage, it’s all about revenge
On the surface, Easter weekend at Mar-a-Lago was an alternate reality, one in which Donald Trump had triumphed and finally put Robert Mueller’sinvestigation in the past. “He got cheers and standing ovations when he walked into places. They made him feel like he won,” one guest said. But there were seams in the performance. “Trump knew he was being watched,” a Republican close to the White House said. Backstage, Trump realizes the damage the report has done, and has taken a much darker view of the post-Mueller landscape.
With Democrats weighing impeachment and his approval rating dropping to its lowest levels of the year, the risks are very real. In response, Trump is lashing out at former West Wing officials whom he blames for providing the lion’s share of damaging information in Mueller’s 448-page report. The former officials Trump has vented about, sources told me, are a group known as “the notetakers” that includes former White House counsel Don McGahn, McGahn’s deputy Annie Donaldson, and staff secretary Rob Porter. “The thing that pisses him off is the note-taking,” a former West Wing official interviewed by Mueller told me. “Trump thinks they could have cooperated with Mueller without all the note-taking.”
Of all Trump’s former staff members, McGahn is receiving the brunt of Trump’s post-Mueller rage. McGahn reportedly spoke to prosecutors for 30 hours during at least three voluntary interviews. He was cited 157 times in the report—more than any witness—and provided vivid examples of Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice, while presenting himself as an ethical actor, a circumstance that’s always been galling for the president. “Trump’s furious with Don,” a source close to the White House, said. According to the source, Trump wants his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to file a personal lawsuit against McGahn for making defamatory statements in the Mueller report. (“Trump never asked me to sue anyone,” Giuliani told me).
Experts say the White House may have already shot itself in the foot on this one.
President Trump told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa on Tuesday that the White House plans to try to block McGahn’s testimony, and aides confirmed they may invoke executive privilege. (Trump added Wednesday: “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.”) Philip Bump has a good explainer on how this process might play out — and how the White House’s true goal may be to delay McGahn’s testimony rather than to win in court and block it.
But the battle over McGahn and executive privilege could be different from others that are likely to follow, and that’s for one significant reason: The White House may have already given up its leverage.
The White House has already effectively waived its right to executive privilege twice when it comes to McGahn. The first time came when it authorized him to speak extensively to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — a decision that resulted in 30 hours of interviews and one that Trump has reportedly come to rue. And then it declined to assert executive privilege over redactions in the Mueller report ahead of the report’s release last week.
It didn’t have to, as Attorney General William P. Barr noted at the time.
“Because the White House voluntarily cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation, significant portions of the report contain material over which the president could have asserted privilege. And he would have been well within his rights to do so,” Barr said. But he added that Trump confirmed he wouldn’t assert executive privilege “in the interests of transparency and full disclosure to the American people.”
Trump’s interest in transparency apparently has its limits, as we’re now finding out with his decision to fight McGahn’s further testimony to the Democratic-controlled House. But experts say the dual waivers of executive privilege severely complicate any further attempt to invoke it.
We’ll see. At this point he just wants to run out the clock. If McGahn’s many wingnut judges are loyal to Dear Leader, they could ensure that nothing happens until after the election. That’s what he’s counting on.