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Mueller Report: White House Counsel Don McGahn Refused Trump's Orders

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The headline of a special counsel's report allowed President Trump to claim victory. An investigation showed the president did not commit criminal conspiracy when Russia worked to support his election in 2016. Details of that report offer a memorable picture of moments in the White House. According to the special counsel, President Trump made numerous, quote, "nonpublic efforts to control the investigation of his own conduct." He told Don McGahn, the top White House lawyer, to have special counsel Robert Mueller fired. McGahn refused, we are told, possibly saving the president from legal jeopardy. When the president's demand was reported by The New York Times, the president ordered Don McGahn to deny the true story, which McGahn did not, saying that, in fact, it was true.

In several other instances, the White House press secretary and others admitted they knowingly gave false information to the media, even as they accused the media of getting stories wrong. We're joined by someone who worked closely with Don McGahn in the White House. He is former White House attorney Jim Schultz. He was there in 2017.

Good morning, sir.

JIM SCHULTZ: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: So the story of Don McGahn being told, quote, "Mueller has to go," among other things by the president and just basically refusing that order, is that true so far as you know?

SCHULTZ: I can't get into anything, whether it's true or not, in the White House. Obviously, that was something that I'm ethically - my ethical boundaries do not allow me to talk about. But what I can say is what's in the report. And from time to time, it's customary for White House staff or governor staff - I served as general counsel to a governor here in Pennsylvania. When you're in those positions, it's your job to tell the boss no. And that's what Don McGahn did in this instance, as it appears in this report.

INSKEEP: And I guess there was some dispute about the facts, but the special counsel says McGahn is a person of character who had no reason to lie. Does that sound accurate to you?

SCHULTZ: I work for Don McGahn. I respect him, absolutely right.

INSKEEP: Now, there is also another instance I guess we can discuss because it's in the report, where McGahn is not only told to fire the special counsel, which he didn't do. But then when this was reported by The New York Times, the president tells him, get out there and deny that. What do you make of this - of the White House counsel in that instance saying, nope, not going to do that, not going to go there?

SCHULTZ: Look. Again, that same answer - you have - in those positions, as a lawyer in the White House that represents the interests of the White House and the president in his capacity as president, it's your job to make those decisions when you're faced with them. And in that instance, according to the report, that's what Don did.

INSKEEP: OK. So what do you make, then, of a president who might well have avoided an obstruction of justice charge partly because his aides refused him, didn't do what he wanted?

SCHULTZ: Look. This is the job of the aides, to - when the president comes to them for advice, their job is to give him that advice and give it to him unvarnished...

INSKEEP: The job of the aides, yes, but what do you think about the president in that situation?

SCHULTZ: But - in this instance, I think Attorney General Barr, yesterday, said it very succinctly, that the president was very frustrated with this investigation. And in his capacity as president, he may remove members of the executive branch government lawfully. And that's within his powers as president of the United States. And Attorney General Barr was also very clear yesterday in saying that the White House cooperated fully with this investigation, transparently with this investigation, didn't exert executive privilege over any documents relating to this investigation and turned them all over to Mueller for inspection. So that...

INSKEEP: Very briefly - I'm sorry to interrupt. I'm so sorry.

SCHULTZ: Sure.

INSKEEP: Time is short. But just very briefly, the president has claimed a total victory here. Should the president take the message from what he describes as an exoneration, that all of his conduct was appropriate?

SCHULTZ: Well, let's remember here that, you know, there was no criminal conspiracy found, no conspiracy found whatsoever, no criminal acts found whatsoever in this report. There was no criminal act found as obstruction. He held back on the obstruction. But remember. Rod Rosenstein, who folks around this country respect - Democrats and Republicans alike - made the same finding that Barr made. And if we recall, some of the Democrats - some of the president's opponents, you know, lauded Rod Rosenstein throughout this investigation and respected him. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Hey, Mr. Schultz, thanks so much - appreciate it.

SCHULTZ: All right, take care. Bye-bye.

INSKEEP: Jim Schultz with the Cozen O'Connor law firm. He's in Philadelphia. NPR's Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department, has been listening in. Carrie, what'd you hear there?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A few thoughts - first of all, this investigation, which lasted about 22 months, did uncover criminal conduct, of course, Steve. Robert Mueller's team has indicted many, many Russians for hacking American accounts and other election interference. And we also know that many associates of the president have been charged and have pleaded guilty, although some are fighting those charges. Many of them pleaded guilty to lying for conduct about their ties with Russia. Finally, this White House was not entirely cooperative. This investigating - investigation wanted the president to sit down for an interview. He refused. All he provided was written answers.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I guess we should note Attorney General Barr said the White House fully cooperated. But it is easy to read the Mueller report and find instances in which they did not give everything they were asked for.

JOHNSON: That's absolutely right.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.