This is only the latest example of people around Trump feeling compelled to document events that disturb them for posterity’s sake: Kelly, McGahn, the former FBI Director James Comey, the former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and the former fixer Michael Cohen have all done it. The president’s lieutenants keep being asked to do things and witness things that they feel are wrong, unwise, or even illegal, and they are making sure there’s a contemporary record to protect them from political blowback, legal exposure, or the president trying to throw them under the bus. That fear is not unfounded: Nearly everyone on this list has become a target of the president’s ire and attempts to shift blame.
Read: Four things the Comey memos reveal
The first known example was Comey, who was the FBI director when Trump was elected. Immediately or shortly after several uncomfortable encounters with the new president, including incidents where Trump asked him for loyalty and asked him to drop an investigation into the ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Comey wrote memos to record the interactions. After he was fired, Comey gave the memos to the Columbia Law professor Dan Richman, who read them to reporters; the memos themselves later leaked.
After Comey was fired, McCabe became the acting director, and he promptly adopted his predecessor’s approach. “I wrote memos about my interactions with President Trump for the same reason that Comey did: to have a contemporaneous record of conversations with a person who cannot be trusted,” McCabe later wrote.
Of course, Comey and McCabe are different from the others: Neither of them was a Trump appointee, and Trump fired both of them, for reasons that range from legitimate to preposterous, depending on one’s interpretation. What is amazing is that Trump’s own appointees seem to have felt the same need to protect themselves.
That includes Kelly and McGahn. This is not the only case of McGahn making sure there was a written record on a controversial or contentious subject, either. The Times previously reported that Trump sought to prosecute both Comey and his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton. McGahn reportedly tried to convince him out of it. “To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment,” the Times reported.
According to another recent story, one of the “crown jewels” of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the White House is the “exhaustive notes taken by Annie Donaldson, Mr. McGahn’s former chief of staff, which detailed in real time Mr. Trump’s behavior in the West Wing.”
Nor is this phenomenon new. Michael Cohen, who worked with Trump for longer than any of these people, also sometimes recorded him, including a conversation about paying hush money to a woman who claimed she had a sexual affair with Trump.