The Random Last Vestiges Of The Mueller Era Are Coming To An End
A two-year legal fight over testimony from a former top Trump administration official ended with little fanfare.
WASHINGTON — When House Democrats subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about the Mueller investigation in spring 2019, all signs pointed to a blockbuster hearing. The special counsel’s report had just come out, and McGahn was a key witness who had aired dirty laundry about then-president Donald Trump’s efforts to interfere with the probe.
Two years later, McGahn finally testified, but there was no dramatic public showdown. It was a closed-door hearing, and the 241-page transcript released Wednesday night featured him repeatedly declining to answer questions in detail, explaining that his memories were no longer “crisp.” To get McGahn to testify and end a protracted legal fight, Democrats had agreed to ask him only about information in the public parts of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. McGahn and his lawyer rebuffed efforts to pry loose something new.
The release of McGahn’s transcript ended one of the last unresolved issues of the Mueller era, which for a time captured the world's attention and spurred breathless updates about every new witness and scrap of inside information. It had the potential to take down a president, after all. But it didn’t, and it was later replaced as the Trump political maelstrom of the moment by not one but two impeachment trials related to other scandals. Mueller’s work put a cadre of Trump’s inner circle in legal jeopardy and, in some cases, prison, but the former president flexed his pardon power before leaving office to wipe most of those slates clean.
Democrats this week promoted the transcript of McGahn’s testimony as featuring “a fresh look at how dangerously close President Trump brought us to, in Mr. McGahn’s words, the ‘point of no return.’” But there wasn’t any indication that the information McGahn provided would expose Trump to new consequences; he largely rehashed his previous testimony to Mueller’s team about the former president's efforts to oust the special counsel, control the public narrative, and punish those he believed were disloyal. The agreement reached with the House Judiciary Committee to secure McGahn’s appearance also meant there wouldn’t be a final word from the courts about whether a former White House official facing a similar situation could be forced to testify before Congress.
McGahn resisted attempts by committee members and staffers to ask him about events not included in the report, but his testimony was not complimentary of the former president. He confirmed that the special counsel’s office got it right when it described his accounts of how Trump had explored options to remove Mueller. He also answered questions about how the then-president and other White House officials had pushed him to contest news reports about a time when he was prepared to resign rather than follow Trump’s directive to take steps to have Mueller removed; McGahn said those reports were largely true. Repeating verbatim some of what he’d told Mueller’s team, he described feeling “frustrated, perturbed, trapped” by Trump’s efforts to interfere.
Some legal commentators and Trump critics have speculated about whether Attorney General Merrick Garland will revisit the decision by his predecessor Bill Barr to not prosecute Trump for obstruction. So far, Garland has shown zero signs that he’s interested in doing that. Trump is no longer covered by a long-standing Justice Department policy against charging a sitting president, but reopening the Russia probe would be a politically explosive move.
Trump’s current legal exposure has some loose ties to Mueller’s work but isn’t directly related. The Manhattan district attorney’s office and New York state attorney general have open investigations into whether Trump and his businesses committed financial crimes, including bank or insurance fraud related to how he valued real estate and other assets in tax filings. An inflection point for those inquiries was former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress in February 2019. Cohen accused Trump of fraud, among many other misdeeds, some of which related to Mueller’s work.
Cohen’s testimony was the latest in a string of public breaks with his former employer. He had cut deals in two criminal cases, both of which originated with Mueller’s team. The special counsel’s office charged him with lying to Congress regarding the Russia investigation. They’d also referred a second matter to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, who charged Cohen with campaign finance violations related to hush money payments he had orchestrated on Trump’s behalf to two women who claimed that they'd had affairs with the former president, along with other financial crimes.
So what else is left? There are pending charges that Mueller’s team brought against more than two dozen Russian nationals accused of interfering in the 2016 election via social media and by hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But those are unlikely to see any action any time soon unless the defendants travel to the US or another country with an extradition agreement. The same goes for Konstantin Kilimnik, a former associate of Paul Manafort's; both were charged, but Kilimnik didn’t get a Trump pardon.
Trump’s pardons freed Manafort from prison and also helped longtime ally Roger Stone avoid time behind bars after a jury found him guilty of trying to obstruct the Russia investigation. But Stone’s legal troubles aren’t over. In April, federal tax prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit that accuses him and his wife of owing nearly $2 million in unpaid taxes. Stone released a statement calling it part of a “smear campaign” that was “motivated by blood lust and liberal hysteria” over his pardon in the Mueller case.
Former federal law enforcement officials filed a handful of pending lawsuits claiming they faced retaliation for their involvement in the Russia investigation and their refusal to show loyalty to Trump. Settlement talks are ongoing in at least one of those, filed by former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, which would cut off the possibility of dramatic trial testimony. On Wednesday, McCabe’s lawyers and the Justice Department asked the judge to keep the case on hold while they negotiate; they had first signaled settlement talks in April.
There are pending cases filed by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two former FBI officials who played key roles in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election before and after Mueller became special counsel. Their personal relationship and anti-Trump texts they had exchanged became public, which made them the subject of frequent attacks by Trump and other Republicans. Strzok sued over his firing, while Page sued over the disclosure of their texts to reporters. The parties in both cases are still in the process of exchanging evidence and are due to file a status report in October.
There was a flurry of legal action from journalists and advocacy groups throughout Mueller’s tenure and in the immediate aftermath arguing for the public release of documents related to the probe. Those cases have largely wrapped up — the Justice Department has turned over thousands of pages of FBI witness summaries in response to lawsuits from BuzzFeed News and CNN — although it has continued to produce documents on a rolling basis; last month, BuzzFeed News published a story about a new cache of nearly 300 pages. The department is doing another review to see how much more it can share since Trump pardoned Manafort, Roger Stone, and George Papadopoulos, and several other people charged by Mueller’s team.
Last month, in response to a lawsuit from a government watchdog group, the Justice Department disclosed part of a March 2019 memo that senior officials had written for Barr. The memo discussed issues related to the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation and the fact that the special counsel declined to reach a conclusion about whether Trump committed obstruction and should be prosecuted; Mueller did write that he wasn’t exonerating the president.
But the fight over the 2019 memo isn’t over: The Justice Department said it plans to continue defending its Trump-era decision to keep most of the document under seal and has appealed a judge’s order that would force the government to release the entire memo.
And what about Mueller? He went back to a private law firm and largely receded from the public eye. No tweets, no books, no TV pundit side gigs. He’s set to crack open the vault a bit this fall, though; the University of Virginia School of Law announced earlier this month that he’d be joining two members of his former team in teaching a course about the investigation.