When news leaked in September that special counsel Robert Mueller had invited an entirely new list of Trump associates to testify in his ongoing investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, two names in particular stuck out.
One was Hope Hicks, Trump’s long-time personal assistant and current communications director. The other was Don McGahn, the current White House Counsel who served as Trump’s chief lawyer during the hotly contested 2016 campaign.
Observers were not surprised Mueller would be interested in speaking to Hope Hicks. In her capacity managing personal communications for Trump through the campaign and his first year in office, she’s been witness to the President’s most intimate moments in office, and she could confirm numerous details for the special counsel’s investigation.
MgGahn’s inclusion, however, raised eyebrows across the political landscape. Experts have concluded that this highly unorthodox move – calling as a witness the lawyer for the person at the center of the investigation, not to speak on that person’s behalf – can only mean one thing: Mueller suspects Trump may have obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
“The motive for firing Comey is critical here,” Nick Akerman, an assistant special prosecutor during the Watergate investigation, said to Newsweek Tuesday. “If he didn’t like Comey because Comey wasn’t bowing to him, that’s not enough to prove obstruction of justice. There has to be a connection between the firing and stopping the investigation, and McGahn will have a lot of information about that.”
The New York Times reported in September that Mueller had obtained a letter Trump intended to send Comey explaining why he fired him. The letter, composed with the help of firebrand senior advisor Steven Miller, was angry in its tone and included objections to the way Comey had handled the Russia investigation, according to the Times, citing administration officials familiar with its contents.
McGahn argued against sending the letter, an argument he ultimately won, insisting instead that the business of crafting the justification for firing Comey should fall to Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein obtained a copy of the original unsent draft and used portions of it his own letter, which eventually served as the White House’s official correspondence for Comey’s termination.
The central argument for Comey’s sacking in Rosenstein’s letter, however, made no mention of Russia. Instead, it cited at length Comey’s supposed mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and server as the reason he recommended Comey be terminated.
In a carefully choreographed maneuver, Rosenstein sent his letter to his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who attached a note endorsing its recommendation and forwarded it to President Trump. A day later, Trump attached a new brief letter addressed to Comey, writing that he had “accepted their [Rosenstein and Sessions] recommendations and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
But that wasn’t all. The president, perhaps unhappy Rosenstein failed to include anything he and Miller had composed in their draft letter, added, “While I greately appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
The inclusion of that last part was the first hint that Comey’s supposed missteps in his investigation of Hillary Clinton outlined by Rosenstein weren’t the whole story. The second hint came days later from Trump’s own mouth when he told NBC’s Lester Holt, “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.”
Does this sequence of events constitute obstruction of justice – an impeachable offense? Special counsel Mueller’s interest in Don McGahn indicates that it very well could.