WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he had “nothing to hide” from the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and denied that his top lawyer had turned on him by cooperating with the probe.
Trump, in a series of tweets, denounced the New York Times for a Saturday story saying White House Counsel Don McGahn has cooperated extensively with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The Times said McGahn had shared detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether Trump obstructed justice.
“I allowed him and all others to testify - I didn’t have to,” Trump said in a tweet. Trump said the newspaper made it seem like McGahn had turned on the president - as White House counsel John Dean had in the Watergate investigation of former President Richard Nixon - “when in fact it is just the opposite.”
As White House counsel since the beginning of the Trump administration, McGahn could have rare insight into the president’s thinking.
His lengthy testimony - 30 hours over three voluntary interviews, according to the Times - could be crucial in determining whether the president acted with an improper, or “corrupt,” intent when he took actions like firing former FBI Director James Comey, legal experts said. That is a key part to an obstruction of justice case.
Citing a dozen current and former White House officials and others briefed on the matter, the Times said that McGahn had shared information, some of which the investigators would not have known about.
On Saturday evening, McGahn’s lawyer confirmed the White House counsel had cooperated with Mueller’s team. “Mr. McGahn answered the Special Counsel team’s questions fulsomely and honestly,” William Burck said, explaining the president did not ask McGahn to refrain from discussing any matters.
Trump’s outside legal counsel, Rudy Giuliani, said McGahn’s cooperation would help bolster Trump’s claims that he did nothing wrong.
“The president encouraged him to testify, is happy that he did, is quite secure that there is nothing in the testimony that will hurt the president,” Giuliani said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Dean, who has criticized Trump in recent years, voiced support for McGahn. “McGahn is doing right!” he wrote on Twitter.
According to the New York Times, McGahn described Trump’s furor toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which the president urged McGahn to respond to it.
Jens David Ohlin, a professor of criminal law at Cornell University, said that even if McGahn told investigators he thought Trump acted lawfully his testimony would still be pivotal.
“The McGahn interviews will add a lot of detail about what was happening behind the scenes and make Mueller’s account much fuller,” said Ohlin.
Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia and has repeatedly attacked the probe as illegitimate.
On Sunday, he compared Mueller with 1950s-era U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-Communist crusade eventually led to his censure by the Senate.
“Study the late Joseph McCarthy, because we are now in a period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby! Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The newspaper reported McGahn’s motivation to speak with the special counsel as an unusual move that was in response to a decision by Trump’s first team of lawyers to cooperate fully. But it said another motivation was McGahn’s fear he could be placed in legal jeopardy because of decisions made in the White House that could be construed as obstruction of justice.
The newspaper said McGahn was also centrally involved in Trump’s attempts to fire the special counsel, which investigators might not have discovered without him.
McGahn cautioned to investigators he never saw Trump go beyond his legal authorities.
His testimony would be even more important if Trump does not sit for an interview with Mueller.
Giuliani said that discussions over a presidential interview continue with Mueller’s office and that he would not be rushed into having Trump testify “so that he gets trapped in perjury.”
In trying to make his argument with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, Giuliani said “Truth isn’t truth,” to which Todd replied: “This is going to become a bad meme.”
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by David Lawder; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Mary Milliken; Editing by Lisa Shumaker