The news that top White House lawyer Don McGahn has met with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team may have raised eyebrows among close watchers of the Russia investigation, but his predecessors in the job say the cooperation itself is not that unusual.
Three former White House counsels told TIME that because the job entails representing the office of the presidency — and not the individual currently holding it — it’s perfectly logical that he would meet with a special counsel investigating it.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served as White House counsel from 2001 to 2005, said that was the first thing he said to President George W. Bush when a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity in 2003.
“I specifically told President Bush, ‘anything you told me is not going to be protected by attorney-client privilege because you are not my client,” Gonzales recounted. “We got him private counsel in connection with that investigation.”
In that case, Gonzales ended up testifying before a grand jury. (The grand jury did not charge anyone with the leak, but did charge Scooter Libby, who was Chief of Staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, with obstruction of justice. Trump pardoned Libby this past April.
“Don McGahn testifying, as well as any other White House employee testifying, is what should be expected,” Gonzales said. “There is no attorney-client privilege … Don McGahn did what he had to do. He was requested by the special counsel to provide information and he cooperated.”
In a tweet responding to a New York Times story about McGahn’s cooperation, President Donald Trump argued that Mcgann’s “giving hours of testimony” did not mean that he was a “John Dean type ‘RAT,'” a reference to a White House lawyer for Richard Nixon whose testimony about Watergate helped lead to the end of his presidency.
Peter Wallison, who was White House counsel for President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra investigation, said that cooperating with a special counsel does not necessarily mean providing damaging information. In fact, he argued that McGahn’s cooperation might even be a sign that Trump is not in as much legal jeopardy as some of his critics assume.
“This is a strong indication that the White House and the president, despite what the president has been saying that always makes things look more dramatic then they are, are not concerned about the Mueller investigation finding things that put the president in jeopardy,” he said.
Wallison testified before an independent prosecutor who was investigation Iran-Contra, a decision he believed was crucial to proving Reagan’s innocence in knowledge of the events.
Regardless of whether it helps Trump or hurts him, the three former White House counsels agreed that McGahn was doing his duty. Jack Quinn, who was White House Counsel for Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997, said Kenneth Starr, who helmed the independent investigation into Clinton’s real estate ventures that ultimately led to the Monica Lewinsky revelations and his subsequent impeachment, never requested to meet with him but he would have complied.
“Everyone whose a lawyer in the government represents the government. You represent the United States, you don’t represent the head of your agency,” he said. “You have an obligation to the government, to the people of the United States.”
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