Trump Threatens To Use Executive Privilege To Block Testimonies On Capitol Hill

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 4:34 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report was released more than two weeks ago, but it's still defining much of what goes on in Washington and beyond. President Trump is at odds with congressional Democrats over their efforts to keep investigating him and his administration in the wake of the Mueller findings. Earlier today, Trump talked about the special counsel investigation with, of all people, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

We're joined for more now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. And Tamara, to start, what did Trump have to say to Putin?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, what we know is what President Trump has said about it. He said that they spoke for about an hour about Venezuela, a possible nuclear arms treaty, trade and, yes, the Mueller report. This is how President Trump recounted that part of the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We discussed it. He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain, and it ended up being a mouse. But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever. So pretty much that's what it was.

KEITH: That appears to have been a reference to a fable about a lot of hype leading to not very much. Of course Putin denies that he interfered in the 2016 election, but numerous Russians and Russian entities were indicted as part of the special counsel investigation for hacking and releasing Clinton campaign emails and for a social media campaign to sow discord in the U.S. and help elect President Trump. Trump was also asked by reporters today if he told Putin not to meddle in 2020. And he said, no, they didn't discuss that.

CORNISH: Meantime, the House Judiciary Committee has issued a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn. They want him to turn over documents early next week and to testify later in the month. Where is the president on this?

KEITH: He clearly does not want McGahn to testify. He said today that he will be deciding in the next few days whether to invoke executive privilege. McGahn, as you might remember, gave 30 hours of interviews to the Office of Special Counsel and featured quite prominently in the obstruction of justice section of the Mueller report. And in President Trump's view, as he expressed today, that was more than enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I let him interview the lawyer, the White House lawyer, for 30 hours. Think of that - 30 hours. I let him interview other people. I didn't have to let him interview anybody. I didn't have to give any documents. I was totally transparent because I knew I did nothing wrong.

KEITH: And President Trump has made it pretty clear he isn't inclined to let McGahn or anyone else from his close orbit go before Congress. He said he's going to fight all the subpoenas. But to this point, he hasn't yet invoked executive privilege.

CORNISH: I want to follow up on this idea of Don McGahn because he already sat for all of those hours of interviews, and the president didn't invoke privilege then. How can he do it now?

KEITH: Well, the White House has this legal theory - and it's something they've been talking about for a while - that Mueller and his investigation were part of the Justice Department, which is part of the executive branch. So even though they cooperated with Mueller, they didn't really waive executive privilege because it was all in the same branch.

But one law professor I spoke to today says that it's not an argument he expects to hold up particularly well because the cat is out of the bag. The Mueller report is a bestseller. He says it would have been a more compelling argument before the report was released. But it is certainly a fight that can and probably will happen in the coming weeks and months and maybe years between the executive branch and the legislative branch.

CORNISH: Plus McGahn is a private citizen. Does that matter?

KEITH: Right. I've reached out to McGahn's personal attorney. He hasn't responded yet. So we don't know exactly what McGahn is thinking. But it's not like he could get fired at this point for going against the president's wishes, but the White House could potentially sue to try to stop him from testifying.

CORNISH: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.