‘People Around The President Are Trying To Stop Him,’ ‘Times’ Journalist Says

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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt says one of the most unusual aspects of the White House administration is the existence of people who are trying to stop President Trump from acting in a way that could hurt the country or break the law.

“In our history as a country, we’ve largely focused on how our presidents use their power, how the people around them help them do that and what that says,” Schmidt says. “In this instance of the Trump presidency, Trump’s use of power is so unusual that we have a phenomenon here where the people around the president are trying to stop him.”

Schmidt’s new book, Donald Trump v. The United States, focuses on two figures in particular who stood up to the president: former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Schmidt describes McGahn as “the most fascinating character of the Trump era.” In June 2017, when Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, McGahn pushed back, threatening to quit rather than to order the Justice Department to dismiss Mueller.

Less than a year later, in April 2018, the president considered ordering the Justice Department to prosecute Comey and political adversary Hillary Clinton. Again, McGahn warned Trump that such a move could be grounds for impeachment.

“Every time Trump wanted to do something crazy McGahn wasn’t cowering in the corner,” Schmidt says. “McGahn had a very good antenna for what a prosecutor may think of what Trump was trying to do and [how] the public and politics would see those actions.”

McGahn also had a hand in other aspects of the Trump presidency, most notably the appointment of conservative judges, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But McGahn’s eventual cooperation with the Mueller investigation did not sit well with the president. McGahn’s time at the White House ended in the fall of 2018 — a parting Trump announced via tweet.

“For McGahn, it was sort of an example of the way that Trump treats people around him,” Schmidt says. “McGahn had done all of these things for the president. He had stopped Trump from hurting himself. He had been in charge of the judges. And I think McGahn wanted to go out on his own terms and had been talking to Trump about that. But here, via tweet, he was finding out that he was done.”


Interview Highlights

On McGahn’s role in stacking the courts

He was in charge of the president’s politically most important thing, which, I think, is the judges, because they created an umbilical cord between Trump and his base that I believe allowed conservatives to put up with behavior from the president that they normally wouldn’t, because Trump was stacking the courts with conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, that were going to have an impact on the country for decades. That was McGahn’s baby.

On uncovering memos McGahn wrote after Trump suggested prosecuting Hillary Clinton and James Comey

He figures out … a way to stop that, a way to slow walk the president at the same time that he’s protecting himself. And he writes these memos to the president that lay out how this is a terrible idea and how he’s advising that he not do this. And the president probably doesn’t even have the power to do this. …

I found these memos, uncovered these memos … about how McGahn is essentially telling Trump, if you mess with the Justice Department, if you even appear to be messing with the Justice Department, you are going to face enormous consequences. You could be impeached. These cases could be thrown out, people at the Justice Department could quit, and ultimately the American people hold the answer to this in the ballot box — and you could be voted out of office for looking like you’re politicizing the incredibly important work of justice.

On why McGahn cooperated as a witness in the Mueller Investigation

When McGahn goes in and he sits down with Mueller’s team, McGahn realizes that he has to do everything he can to be forthcoming with them. Every witness has to be forthcoming with investigators. They have to tell the truth. They have to tell the full story. But McGahn is essentially there and saying, Look, these prosecutors need to hear from me everything first, because I don’t think I did anything wrong. And they have a potentially enormous amount of leverage over me. They could write a report. They may write a report that lays out my behavior. I need to be the first one in the door to tell them about anything because I’m in a very vulnerable position.

And what happens is that they end up with this incredible witness, someone who has credibility, someone who has access and who has a very good ability to recall the facts and including writing notes in memos to himself between him and his chief of staff that document these conversations. In an investigation, that type of witness is hugely consequential. And in this case, the president’s lawyer was that person against the president.

On Trump’s tendency to demand loyalty at all cost from his advisers

It puts these people around him in the situation where they sort of have to choose. Are they going to do everything that he says? Are they going to do some of the things that he says, or are they just going to quit? And what are these different people’s tolerances for Trump’s behavior and what they’re willing to do? Trump, in many ways, is sort of this human MRI machine where he sort of is able to come and reveal what is inside of someone and what motivates them and what they are willing to do. [Former White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly sticks around until he basically figures out: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it. … [And] I just don’t have the ability to continue this effort.

So that is the thing about Trump … what he puts the people around him through and how they have to make these decisions, these calculations about what’s important to them. To McGahn, he had a never-again opportunity to remake the court. No president would give one person so much sway over the people [they] are putting on their court. In previous administrations, there’d be panels of folks that would look at resumes and go through this whole process. But McGahn had it all streamlined, and he could essentially pick the judges. So he’s a huge believer in that. And because of that, [he] puts up with things that most people in Washington probably wouldn’t.

On the final sentence of his book: “The president had bent Washington to his will”

On Feb. 14 of 2017, less than a month into the presidency, Donald Trump clears the Oval Office and he asked Jim Comey to end the [Michael] Flynn investigation. Jim Comey makes a memo about this. And then that May, after Comey [is] fired, I write a story about that memo and it creates such an eruption in Washington. The following day, Mueller is appointed, and it looks like he’s going to be doing this massive investigation of the president. The disclosure at the time that Trump had asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation really shook the ground, and it really put Trump on a different footing and this story on a path unlike any other, because it looked like it was a president trying to use his power to protect himself.

This past spring, the president’s attorney general, Bill Barr, went to court and asked the court to throw out Mike Flynn’s guilty plea. In that sense, the president’s Justice Department was asking the court to end the Flynn investigation. And if you’ve watched this story, you can’t help but look at that and say Donald Trump bent Washington to his will. He got his own Justice Department to do what Jim Comey wouldn’t do in the first month of his presidency.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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