As with Cohen, Trump and McGahn may be the only two people who can fully know what McGahn could say and how damaging it would be. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which is mostly Trump-friendly, downplayed the importance of McGahn’s testimony, saying it should in fact build confidence of Trump’s innocence. “Could it be that Mr. Trump let Mr. McGahn cooperate with Mr. Mueller because he felt he had nothing to cover up?” the board wrote. (This argument does not account for why Trump is simultaneously ramping up his attacks on Mueller and publicly demanding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions fire him.)
But Trump’s legal moves so far hardly instill confidence that he’s proceeding deliberately and with circumspection. Even though the president faces what is by most accounts serious legal troubles, his defense team has been a raucous, frequently rotating group, and he has gone through at least as many different legal strategies as he has lawyers.
First, Trump hired Marc Kasowitz, who had worked for him in divorce and bankruptcy cases. Kasowitz delivered several unusual or provably false comments, threatened a stranger via email, and then exited. The president then added John Dowd, an experienced white-collar defender, and Jay Sekulow, a conservative activist most experienced in First Amendment issues. He also hired Ty Cobb as a special White House counsel.
Cobb and Dowd proceeded from the presumption that Trump was innocent, and since he had nothing to hide, he should cooperate as much with Mueller as possible. Cobb argued in favor of Trump speaking with Mueller, and became infamous for vainly promising impending ends to the Mueller investigation—first Thanksgiving 2017, then Christmas.
It was under Cobb and Dowd’s stewardship that Trump decided not to assert executive privilege over McGahn. (Relations between Cobb, Dowd, and McGahn were tense: A Times reporter also overheard Cobb complaining to Dowd about McGahn at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., while McGahn reportedly worried that the other two were weakening the presidency with their cooperative stance.)
Whether Cobb and Dowd were right, they are gone now. Dowd left Trump’s team in March, and Cobb in May. In March, Sekulow announced the hiring of Joe DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney and current peddler of conspiracy theories, then just as quickly announced the hire had fallen through due to conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, a series of the most qualified and respected lawyers in Washington turned down the opportunity to defend Trump, perhaps noting Trump’s tendency to contradict his lawyers and to undermine his defense in his public statements. The president is also reportedly receiving advice from lawyers outside his team.
Trump has since hired Giuliani, Emmet Flood, and Martin and Jane Raskin. The current team has taken a much more defensive, combative approach, pulling back on cooperation. Despite the president’s professions of wanting to speak with Mueller, his lawyers have fought back against the idea.