ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Bookshelf, our series on new books that leaders in Washington are reading. I’m Robert Costa.
And joining us is Michael Schmidt, Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the New York Times bestselling book Donald Trump Versus the United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President. Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
MR. COSTA: This book, Michael, is a fascinating and detailed account of the White House during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, and it focuses frequently throughout the book on key players, two of them: former FBI Director James Comey and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. While we know more about Comey from his book and public statements, McGahn has long kept a low profile. He is a complicated figure, both enabling and stopping the president at various times, and in Mike’s book he writes the president, quote, “told McGahn that he wanted a lawyer in the model of Roy Cohn – dirty fixer extraordinaire…the last thing the White House needed was a support staff of Roy Cohns.” And per McGahn’s lawyer, “Don’s view was that it was his finger in the dike and,” quote, if he goes, “this entire thing collapses.” Mike, let’s start with McGahn because you have taken this figure from the Trump era and captured him in a way we haven’t seen in any other book, and it begins really with you literally chasing him down to try to get the story. There are so many characters, Mike, in the Trump orbit. What drew you to McGahn as you thought about taking this step back and writing this book?
MR. SCHMIDT: I think that McGahn is probably the most consequential character of the first term of Trump’s presidency because he did three things. He was in charge of the umbilical cord between Trump and his base, the judges, the thing that allowed conservatives to go along with a president who behaved in ways that they did not like. The second thing is that he was a chief container of the president, someone who would not do everything the president wanted him to do because he thought he would hurt himself or he thought he would hurt the country or the office of the presidency. The third thing that McGahn did is that he was a chief witness against his client in an existential threat, an investigation into the presidency. And those are just three remarkable forces on one person, and I try and capture the human element of what it is like to try and do those three things. And to make it all the more perhaps historically impactful, McGahn stayed around long into the presidency, long after he had basically lost control of the president, because he knew if he stayed he may have another shot at getting a seat on the Supreme Court, and he stays through the summer of 2018 and gets that with Kavanaugh.
MR. COSTA: Another character that’s close to McGahn – I really was fascinated by your writing on him – was this lawyer most people haven’t heard of, Bill Burck, McGahn’s lawyer. And it’s such a telling kind of portrait of Washington the lawyer’s lawyer is also a character and an important one, and everybody’s kind of navigating through the darkness at times of these crises, and McGahn turns to Burck and other friends. But explain Bill Burck as a character and why he matters.
MR. SCHMIDT: So McGahn was walking such a tightrope that he needed a lawyer himself. McGahn had studied the previous White House counsels like John Dean who got themselves into trouble when they started digging, and you’d probably say, well, shouldn’t McGahn have left if he thought that he was in a position where he could get himself into trouble criminally. Well, McGahn knew he had a never and again opportunity where Trump basically allowed him to pick the judges, to be the person to come to him with the nominations, so he wants to stay because he has that power and he also wants to make sure that he stays out of trouble. So he goes and gets a lawyer himself, someone to guide him through this process as he tries to prevent the president from breaking the law and has to become a witness against his own client, and it’s Burck who is sort of the guide to McGahn to help him through this as McGahn tries to achieve this goal of remaking the courts. And Burck wants McGahn to stay in his role at the White House because Burck thinks if McGahn leaves someone like Michael Cohen, a presidential fixer extraordinaire like Roy Cohn, would come in and be the White House counsel, and would not be there to stop the president. So he is intimately involved in managing the White House counsel as the White House counsel tries to manage the president.
MR. COSTA: Mike, one of the great parts about this book is that you really document how McGahn came to serve as the so-called chief witness, as you said, of the president during this investigation, cooperating with Mueller. When you talk and write about characters like Bill Burck and Don McGahn, where do they come in in this debate inside of the president’s circle about whether to cooperate with Mueller? Why did McGahn become this chief witness when some people close to the president were saying they shouldn’t give any documents over and they should put a wall up between Mueller and the White House?
MR. SCHMIDT: The president’s first team of lawyers back in 2017 sold the president on a cooperation strategy. Ty Cobb and John Dowd told the president the more he cooperates the sooner they could get it over. Dowd thought he could have it over in a matter of months and could get Mueller to put out a statement saying the president was no longer under investigation. What they didn’t do is they didn’t take the opportunity to find out what witnesses may know about the president to see if they could try and stop them from testifying by asserting different types of privileges. So they say to McGahn, we want you to go in and cooperate without knowing what McGahn knows. And McGahn and Burck sort of say to themselves, this is not a good idea; we know what we know, we know what Trump tried to get McGahn to do, we can’t – we can’t have him go in as a witness here against his client, tell them no. But Dowd and Cobb say yeah, go ahead, and McGahn thinks maybe it’s such an unusual decision maybe they’re setting McGahn up to take the fall. So when McGahn goes in to meet with the prosecutors, he has to be fully forthcoming and he wants to ensure that they are hearing from him first anything because he knows that that will show them his credibility. And on top of it, this is not just your average criminal investigation. Burck and McGahn know there will be a report at the end of this, and a few errant adjectives and verbs here and there and these investigators can paint McGahn in a pretty negative light, and McGahn has a second career ahead of him. He’s still in his 40s and he doesn’t want to lose his law license or lose his reputation, so when they go in they know they have to be fully forthcoming and as helpful as possible to protect McGahn.
MR. COSTA: And he’s now at the Jones Day law firm, back at the Jones Day law firm in Washington, D.C. And Mike, this book, it brought back a lot of memories for me. I remember staking out Mueller’s office one time for The Washington Post and I saw a car go into the secret garage for the Mueller office and I knew it was McGahn because the person in the backseat of the car had shaggy hair, and Don McGahn still fancies himself kind of a former rock and roller musician so he keeps that long hair, which made him noticeable to reporters.
But Mike, I want to ask you about the president’s other lawyers: Rudy Giuliani, Jay Sekulow. One thing in this book that I think deserves a lot more attention is your portrait of them, your reporting on them, and it’s striking how they see Robert Mueller in the course of your book. And Mueller as a character, to say the least, comes across as someone many people have different views of his effectiveness, whether he was the right leader for that investigation. What did you learn?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, I think that the personality of the person overseeing the investigation is almost as consequential to the investigation as the evidence – the evidence itself. Ken Starr’s personality, Lawrence Walsh’s personality, previous investigators like Mueller had huge bearings on the direction of the investigation. And as I report in the book, Mueller was in many ways a shell of his former self and he didn’t want to take such an aggressive approach to investigating the president. He didn’t even want to make a determination about whether the president broke the law. He did not seek an interview with the president. He even closed up his investigation before its two most important cases had been resolved – the sentencing of Mike Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and the trial and ultimate sentencing of Roger Stone, the president’s fixer. So Mueller leaves those cases unguarded. Bill Barr, the attorney general, without Mueller around is able to dip his hands into those investigations and at the very least create the perception of politics in their result. So Mueller himself and who he was had a huge bearing on what this investigation turned up. These interviews with Woodward that have been in the news this week are so significant because Mueller never got to interview the president. Mueller never got to sit down. Mueller chose not to do that, but Bob Woodward did.
MR. COSTA: Mike, amid the pandemic and America’s racial reckoning, the Russia probe to many Americans may feel like a lifetime ago, but this week the House Intelligence Committee made a new whistleblower complaint public. The whistleblower alleges the acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, tried to block intelligence reports on Russian interference in the upcoming election because it would, quote, “make the president look bad” according to whistleblower Brian Murphy. The White House and DHS have denied the allegations, but the Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, has asked the whistleblower to testify before the House in the coming weeks. This story on the whistleblower at DHS must have caught your attention because the Russia probe is done, it’s over, it’s on a shelf, but it yet never really leaves the Trump presidency.
MR. SCHMIDT: No, I mean, one of those reasons is that there is no evidence that the president’s own personal business ties to Russia have been investigated, as I lay out in the – in the book. But on a – on another level, what you’re raising about this whistleblower sort of underscores a larger point about the Trump administration. That’s a new story – there’s a whistleblower, they’re coming forward about something that the whistleblower was unwilling to do that the administration wanted. In some ways that is the essence of the story of the Trump administration. It’s how do the people around the president react to the president and his demands? Jim Comey was the first one. He was never going to bend, and the president got rid of him. Don McGahn was next in line. McGahn was willing to go along with some things, but not others, but stayed in the ring to try and remake the courts.
What Trump does is he sort of is this human MRI machine, to see what you’re willing to do, what you’re willing to go along with. And my guess is that the, you know, Faucis of the world, and Deborah Birxes, and folks like that, that are dealing with the pandemic, confront the same situation that Comey and McGahn did. How far are you willing to go? Are you willing to stay? And the rationalization that staying in your position is better than leaving, because you believe you can have – you can do more good by trying to grab the wheel than by being outside the car.
MR. COSTA: Mike, you mentioned Bob Woodward. And this book, in some aspects, reminds me of Woodward’s All The President’s Men because as a reporter myself I love seeing the anecdotes about your own experiences in Washington. Going to a party – you say you rarely go to parties because you’re working so hard. But you go to a party, and you just miss hearing someone from the attorney general’s staff talk about what’s going to come next.
And it reminded me about how all-consuming this story is – the Trump presidency. And for you to sit down and write this book – as you reflect on being a reporter on this story now for three and a half years. You’ve reported on Major League Baseball. You’ve won a Pulitzer Prize for #MeToo reporting on Fox News, for Russia reporting. But when you have had time to sit back and write this book, what are your own personal reflections about the story and the experience?
MR. SCHMIDT: I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think that there was a relentlessness to this story that was just sort of off the charts. It was constant in a way that I had never seen or confronted before as a reporter. And it was like a marathon, but you were sprinting every mile. And that took a lot of wear and tear in different ways. And the story – the remarkable thing about the story is that it continued to build on itself. It’s certainly in that first year of the presidency, it seemed as if the president was truly a producer on this own show trying to outdo the previous week. And it was – it was the sensation of not being surprised but being shocked – you know, a phrase that people often refer to about how unusual it’s been to deal with these disclosures.
The other thing about the era – which is not a new thought but is something that I’ve seen and experienced – is just the quick nature that the news cycle turns over. It just turns over in a way that’s just far different and far faster than anything else. If you don’t like the news cycle, it’s kind of like the weather in Florida in the summer, just wait a little bit and something new will sort of come by.
And at the heart of the entire thing, at the reason for, I think, a lot of this, is that the president has just – you know, as I say in the book, the president can’t take a punch, but he can take a beating better than anyone else. Like, he can’t deal with these disclosures and he goes crazy about them, but despite being exposed and embarrassed in ways that no other modern president has, the president continues to trek on, and almost undeterred, unchanged. And still, as I say in the final parts of the book, trying to bend Washington to his will. He has never given in to Washington. He has never changed for it. And he has just continued on the way that he thinks is best.
MR. COSTA: And there’s another scene in the book – we use this term “bombshell” in our business – oh, that’s a bombshell report. But it almost is sometimes like you’re holding a bomb. When you had a story – the big story on Jim Comey, the former FBI director, his notes. And you were able to get insights and details reporting on what the president said to Jim Comey, asking for his loyalty inside the White House, these strange exchanges in the Oval Office and elsewhere. And you write about almost the – it’s a sense of calm that comes over you, because you see the storm right in front of you about to come the minute you press publish. Can you just recall that story in particular, and how tough it was to get this professor to work with you – you talk about it in the book – and then finally, to make sure it was right, and to hit publish?
MR. SCHMIDT: Yeah, this is the story of how the president asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation. And the – it was – it was – it showed for the first time the president trying to dip his hand down into the Justice Department, and to try and do something using his power to protect himself.
So because it was the first time that we really saw this behavior, I knew that it was going to have an impact that was going to change the direction of the story. I knew that it was going to send the story into a darker place than it was in before. And, you know, what I didn’t know at the time is that Bob Mueller would be appointed the next day, and would conduct an obstruction of justice investigation that centered – at least started on the February 14th meeting, this meeting which I was describing, where Trump asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation, and sort of sprawling out from there.
I had a feeling at the time – at different points in my career I’ve written different stories. And sometimes you think, oh, this’ll be a huge story, and it doesn’t turn out to be that. Or, I think this’ll be a two-week long story, and it turns out to be something bigger. And in this case, I could sense immediately when I found out this information that it was going to change the arc of the Trump presidency, and it was going to create enormous new problems for the president.
MR. COSTA: Mike, we’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to you for coming on and discussing this deeply reported book with us. Really appreciate it. And congratulations, Mike. It is a terrific piece of reporting, something that’ll stand up for a long time.
MR. SCHMIDT: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
MR. COSTA: And thank you all for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you a closer look into all the things going on in the campaign as election day nears. And you’ll also receive a weekly note from me about what we’re going to show on the program that evening. But for now, thanks for joining us. I’ll see you next time.