Former Don McGahn aide blocked by White House from answering questions, House panel says

/ AP

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee says a former Trump administration official who was a vital witness in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation was blocked by the White House from answering more than 200 of its questions.

The Democratic-led panel Monday released written responses provided by Annie Donaldson, who served as chief of staff to former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Both cooperated with Mueller, providing vivid accounts about episodes at the heart of the special counsel's probe into whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct justice. Mueller's report repeatedly references handwritten notes that Donaldson took about Trump's angry reactions to the unfolding Russia probe.

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Though the White House made staff available for questioning by Mueller's team, the administration has taken a more adversarial approach to demands from Congress and moved to block testimony from multiple ex-officials, including McGahn. The Judiciary Committee is investigating whether President Trump obstructed justice during the probe after Mueller said he could not exonerate the president on that point.

"The White house has directed that I not respond to this question because of the constitutionally-based executive branch confidentiality interests that are implicated," Donaldson answered repeatedly.

Donaldson agreed to answer written questions from the committee but did not appear for a scheduled deposition last month because she was in her third trimester of pregnancy. The panel previously said Donaldson would appear in person after Nov. 1.

The transcript sheds little new light on her time at the White House. In response to dozens of questions, Donaldson replied that the White House had instructed her not to answer because of "constitutionally-based executive branch confidentiality interests that are implicated." That is new wording for White House lawyers, who cited what they called "absolute immunity" when instructing former Trump aide Hope Hicks not to answer questions last month. The Judiciary Committee plans to challenge that concept in court.

The questions included what actions the president took that led officials to become concerned that he would fire then-FBI Director James Comey; efforts by Mr. Trump to prevent the recusal from the Russia probe of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and calls from the president to McGahn seeking the removal of Mueller because of perceived conflicts of interest.

In several cases Donaldson affirmed Mueller's references to her notes or her interview with his office, with the following caveat: "I have no reason to question the accuracy of the special counsel's office's description of my handwritten notes or my voluntary statements to it, although I do not have access to its records of my statements."

The committee insists the president's lawyers improperly limited Donaldson's testimony.

Mueller is scheduled to testify publicly next week before the House's judiciary and intelligence committees, something Attorney General William Barr says will turn into a "public spectacle." While the judiciary panel is investigating obstruction of justice, the intelligence panel is looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller wrote that there was not enough evidence to establish a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, but detailed extensive contacts between the two.

As part of the intelligence committee's probe, its staff will interview Felix Sater behind closed doors on Tuesday, Sater said Monday. The Russia-born business executive worked with Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, on a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow before the 2016 election. The project was later abandoned, and Cohen is now in prison, partly on charges that he lied to Congress about the duration of the project.

First published on July 9, 2019 / 9:21 AM

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