WASHINGTON — Donald F. McGahn II arrived in a windowless conference room in southwest Washington in November 2017 to meet for the first time with the special counsel’s investigators. He was the White House counsel at the time, and he was reluctant to answer their questions for fear that President Trump would one day blame him for any damaging revelations.
A year and a half later, the scapegoating has begun. Mr. Trump and his surrogates began attacking Mr. McGahn shortly after the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, revealed he was the chief witness to the president’s attempts to undermine the inquiry. In an interview on Monday, a member of Mr. Trump’s legal team challenged Mr. McGahn’s motives and memory and accused investigators of ignoring inconsistencies in his assertions.
“This is a cross-examination a law student could perform — by the time he’s finished, you would come to the conclusion he’s hopelessly confused” and would be “shaking,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said of Mr. McGahn’s interviews with investigators.
Mr. Giuliani acknowledged that he was amping up attacks on Mr. McGahn in an attempt to undermine the Mueller report as Democrats called for their congressional leaders to use it as a basis for impeachment proceedings. The Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Mr. McGahn on Monday to testify next month and hand over documents.
“We have no choice but to attack because the Democrats say there is impeachable material here,” Mr. Giuliani said.
Mr. McGahn’s lawyer, William A. Burck, declined to comment on the subpoena but pushed back on Mr. Giuliani, saying that his client stood by the accounts he gave the special counsel.
“The report speaks for itself, and no amount of obfuscation by Mr. Giuliani is going to fool anyone,” Mr. Burck said in a statement. “Don told the truth to Mueller.”
The attacks by Mr. Trump and his allies demonstrate the pivotal roles that Mr. McGahn played in the Russia inquiry. As the chief White House lawyer, he stepped in repeatedly to thwart Mr. Trump’s attempts to curtail the investigation. But he also served as the unofficial narrator of the special counsel’s report on whether the president obstructed justice. He is cited 157 times, more than any other witness.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have homed in on his account of Mr. Trump’s ordering the special counsel fired in June 2017 and later attempts to get Mr. McGahn to recant what he told investigators about the episode. The encounters — lawmakers are pursuing documents about them — are two of the most damning examples of potential obstruction of justice laid out in the Mueller report and show the clearest example of Mr. Trump attempting to influence witness testimony.
Days after a New York Times article in January 2018 revealed that the president directed Mr. McGahn to have the Justice Department fire Mr. Mueller, Mr. Trump told a senior aide he was considering firing Mr. McGahn. The president also wanted Mr. McGahn to create a paper trail denying his own account by writing a letter to keep on file, “something beyond a press statement to demonstrate that the reporting was inaccurate,” according to the report.
Mr. McGahn refused, setting up an Oval Office confrontation with the president. Mr. Trump denied that he ordered Mr. Mueller fired, saying he had instead wanted Mr. McGahn to alert the Justice Department to what the president contended were several conflicts of interest of Mr. Mueller, according to the report. But Mr. McGahn reminded the president that he had indeed told him to fire the special counsel, the report said. The president again asked Mr. McGahn to issue a correction to the Times article, but Mr. McGahn refused.
“McGahn thought the president was testing his mettle to see how committed McGahn was to what happened,” Mr. Mueller’s investigators wrote.
Mr. Giuliani has picked up where Mr. Trump left off, insisting that the president never told Mr. McGahn to have Mr. Mueller fired. He said the president was only venting.
Mr. Giuliani also falsely asserted that Mr. McGahn provided conflicting accounts to investigators.
“This is much more a sleight of hand by special counsel than by McGahn because it sounds like McGahn gave two to three different versions,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that he thought Mr. Mueller’s report was a “disgrace” because it left out that Mr. Trump brought up the special counsel’s perceived conflicts of interest with other people without demanding he be fired.
Mr. Burck said his client was simply telling the truth under threat of perjury, not accusing the president of illegally obstructing justice.
“Clients sometimes approach their lawyers with bad ideas,” Mr. Burck said. “That’s not obstruction — it just comes with the territory. Don did his job. Mueller was not removed.”
Mr. Giuliani’s attacks on Mr. McGahn have unnerved some senior White House officials, who have argued privately that the president and his legal team should stop drawing attention to damaging episodes in the report, according to two people close to the White House. But Mr. Trump has privately complained about the accounts, particularly the ones given by Mr. McGahn, and has said the only way to protect himself from impeachment is to attack Mr. Mueller and Mr. McGahn, the people said.
Mr. McGahn’s harmful testimony stems from the president’s own decision two years ago to fully cooperate with the inquiry and apparent ignorance about the implications of allowing his aides to describe private conversations to investigators.
The president believed that he was hastening the end of the investigation, according to a former White House official. But the decision perplexed Mr. McGahn, who expressed the view that Mr. Trump should take a more aggressive approach to the investigation, the official said. On a personal level, he also expressed concern that the president was setting him up to take the fall by allowing him to openly speak with the Mueller team.
“What Mr. Giuliani seems to forget is that it was the president who decided Don should fully cooperate — despite available privileges — and who made it public,” Mr. Burck said.
Mr. Trump belied a lack of understanding about his agreement to waive executive privilege when he confronted Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office meeting early last year.
Mr. McGahn said that he had no choice but to reveal to investigators the president’s attempt to have Mr. Mueller fired because he was not protected by attorney-client privilege in his role as White House counsel, a post that exists to protect the presidency itself, rather than the president. At the time, Mr. Trump also knew that the White House had handed over many handwritten notes that Mr. McGahn’s chief of staff had kept about his interactions with the president.
“What about those notes? Why do you take notes?” Mr. Trump asked Mr. McGahn, according to the report. “Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
Mr. McGahn said that he was a “real lawyer” and that taking notes was a good way to create a record.
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Mr. Trump said, referring to his former lawyer and fixer who was later disbarred for ethics violations.