REVIEW: ‘Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President ‘

Here’s what we all missed. Andrew McCabe thought they had protected their investigation by maneuvering Rod Rosenstein into appointing Mueller, but what he and most observers didn’t understand is that Rosenstein used Mueller to effectively sideline McCabe and the FBI.

Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President
Copyright © 2020 by Michael S. Schmidt
All rights reserved.
Random House, New York

This is a book hoping to become a movie — written as a screenplay in waiting — and a prime example of our changing ideas of journalism. Newspapers continue to gasp and die, while more journalists find themselves having to dress up and learn which camera to acknowledge, finding clever ways to transform complicated thoughts into more easily digested soundbites.

Here’s how Michael Schmidt’s “Donald Trump V. The United States” mixes theater and teleplay with some old-fashioned newsgathering:

“AUGUST 1, 2018
ONE YEAR, SIX MONTHS, AND TWELVE DAYS INTO THE PRESIDENCY

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just before 9:30 on a brutally humid summer night in Washington, I was in a dead sprint down Connecticut Avenue toward the White House, chasing after a man who had no idea I was trying to catch him.” The only thing missing is camera directions.

When so much still remains unknown, I don’t envy Schmidt’s attempt to tell the story of the Trump presidency when so many of us have been rendered mostly speechless, when normality has been torn into a million pieces, when “grab ‘em by the pussy,” picking Putin over the CIA, betraying our Kurdsh allies, refusing to condemn torch-bearing fascists, then botching a plague hardly puts a dent in his 40% support.

We’re victims of a recurring present-/post-traumatic stress disorder. But if you’re brave and hardy enough, Schmidt takes us back through our national nightmare quite ably, with a few remarkable revelations. It helps if you’re not bothered by the repeated reliance on anonymous sources.

Let’s start with his focus: “There were several officials who stood up to Trump that I could have chosen to concentrate on. I ultimately focused on two main ones: former FBI director James B. Comey and former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II. I chose Comey because, besides Presidents Obama and Trump, I believe Comey made the decisions that had the greatest impact on the country …[and] McGahn did two other things that made him remarkable: He was in charge of Trump’s greatest political accomplishment, and he found himself caught up as the chief witness against Trump in an investigation that posed an existential threat to the president.”

Comey has written a book, appeared on dozens of talk shows offering a multiplicity of worthy-to-quote comments, but McGahn has been deliberately quiet and circumspect. He’s a high-powered attorney with many reasons to practice discretion. I often wanted to know how Schmidt knew what he claimed to know about McGahn.

I’m going to skip past Schmidt’s long retelling of the Comey story mostly because it’s been told many times. But McGahn, it turns out, is far more central to the Trump story than most of us ever knew, which is why we’re back to sprinting down a Washington street alongside Schmidt: “he had never been a source, but I wanted badly to know everything he knew about President Trump and the inside dynamics of his administration … Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, was more important to the success and survival of Trump’s presidency than anyone else in the West Wing …”

Schmidt tells us: “McGahn was only really known to those who closely watched the administration … From McGahn’s perspective, he was there to serve as the most senior lawyer responsible for counseling the president behind closed doors and helping him work the levers of power to achieve his policy goals … trying to fit the square peg of what Trump wanted to do as he worked the levers of power through the round hole of what was legal and ethical … He routinely staked out positions on issues that violated the law and that ran counter to what career law enforcement, intelligence, military, and economic officials believed was right. Even more mysteriously, at times Trump appeared to favor policies that benefited America’s geopolitical adversaries, like Russia, more than the United States.”

Don McGahn, 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, Maryland. Photo: Gage Skidmore

What motivated McGahn? “As a staunch libertarian, McGahn had long dreamed of a judiciary that worked to limit the reach of government … McGahn knew he was receiving a once-in-a-never-again opportunity … And with a Republican Senate and an open seat on the Supreme Court, the arrangement gave McGahn an extraordinary power …”

Schmidt contends that “McGahn was one of the few Trump advisers … who regularly stood up to the president, telling him when his ideas were harebrained and screaming back at him when he unloaded nasty digs at the senior staff. Their clashes were primal, I had been told, and when they got really bad, Trump would go for what was the ultimate insult in his book, telling McGahn that he ‘used to be a great lawyer.’ All of this left McGahn sufficiently scarred, and he had started calling Trump ‘Kong,’ ‘King Kong,’ or ‘fucking Kong’ behind his back … And as much as his attempts to rein Trump in infuriated the president, McGahn was almost singularly responsible for the two greatest political accomplishments of the Trump presidency: stacking the courts with conservative judges and slashing government regulations …”

One of the most telling revelations of Trump V. The United States is the extent to which McGahn cooperated with Mueller and why: “A trusted source had told me that as the special counsel had accelerated the investigation of the president the previous year, McGahn had become convinced that with Trump’s fleeting sense of loyalty the president was going to make him a scapegoat. Fearing his own legal exposure, McGahn had begun cooperating with Mueller’s investigators far more extensively than the White House and Trump knew. He’d even arranged for nearly a thousand pages of handwritten White House notes to be given to investigators without the president’s lawyers or anyone else in the White House knowing — notes that provided a road map for how the president had potentially obstructed justice … McGahn was putting his boss’s entire presidency in peril … he spent hours discussing the lead-up to and the execution of the firing of Comey, as well as the White House’s reaction and response to the appointment of Mueller.”

Meanwhile, McGahn’s lawyer, William Burck: “realized that the prosecutors had yet to ask about the attempt to fire Mueller. The prosecutors finished asking questions about all the incidents they knew about and then asked McGahn a standard question they always ask a witness at the end of an interview: Is there anything else related to what we discussed today that we should know about? … ‘There was an issue in June when Trump wanted Don to take action on Mueller,’ Burck said. McGahn tensed. He knew that disclosing the incident could damage Trump. But he had to tell the truth. Reluctantly, he offered a few details …

“The team had an active investigation into whether the president was obstructing justice, and they were learning about new actions he had taken to thwart that investigation. For Mueller and McGahn, this information needed to be kept secret. If it got out, Trump might retaliate and fire what could be a potentially fruitful ongoing source for Mueller. But in the days after McGahn testified, word of what he said began to spread in Mueller’s office, the FBI, and elsewhere in Washington …”

Nevertheless, and all the while: “McGahn stayed in his job as White House counsel, advising on everything from trade policy to national security. A source told me that McGahn believed he needed to try to stop the president from inflicting damage to the office of the president and the country …”

Schmidt demonstrates what is often required of Washington-based reporters: perseverance verging on pestering, the occasional invasion of privacy, and skills that rival the best of interrogators. Schmidt shares the fruit of his successful dash: “unsure whether McGahn remembered me, I introduced myself … He shook my hand. ‘Did you see who I was eating with?’ he asked in a way that made me believe it was someone I’d be interested in. I told him that I hadn’t [and] I fell back on a lesson I was taught early in my career at the Times from a veteran reporter: When you’re in front of someone who has information, just keep the person talking; you may never get another shot …”

“As we made small talk about West Wing gossip … the first questions that came to my mind cut directly to the heart of the story. How much did you really cooperate with Mueller? Why have you continued to work for Trump? Is the power of your job so great that you’ll endure working for someone whom I know you despise in order to get your political goals accomplished? Are you Mueller’s secret mole in the White House? Those might have been the right questions, but they were far too aggressive and intrusive. Instead, it occurred to me that the safest place to let him go was his greatest accomplishment to date in the White House: his unrelenting drive to stack the courts …

“I brought up [Justice] Kennedy, asking him where he’d first come to know him. McGahn said he had met Kennedy at a cocktail party in Washington a couple of years earlier and that they had hit it off … The two had grown so close that McGahn often consulted with Kennedy about different judicial picks, McGahn said …

“He didn’t seem to be in a rush to stop talking to me … [So] I turned the conversation to show that I knew something about his life. The previous Labor Day, I’d been to McGahn’s hometown of Brigantine, New Jersey, a small town on the Jersey shore right outside Atlantic City … McGahn told me he really liked Brigantine because there wasn’t a rigid class system that was ruled by elites.

“‘Now, life in Washington — there are elites,’ he said … By now I’d delayed his entrance into the White House for at least half an hour. The sky was a reddish purple, the shade that appears at night when a thunderstorm is about to roll in. My time was short.

“‘I’ve probably written more stories about you than anyone else,’ I said. ‘I realize we aren’t perfect. We don’t have badges and guns and the power of subpoena. We don’t bat a thousand. But what percent do you think I’ve gotten right? Have I gotten anything big wrong?’

“Until then, the conversation had been cordial and about nothing of consequence. ‘I never saw anything that was really off,’ he said. ‘The biggest thing is that you make things more dramatic.’ ‘That’s fair,’ I said. ‘People sometimes say that about us, that we overdramatize things; sometimes things can feel more dramatic reading them than living through them. I get it.’

“It began to drizzle. It was now or never. I had to find out if the information I had received was true. Had McGahn turned on the president? And if so, why? ‘You’ve done a lot of damage to the president and nobody knows it,’ I said. McGahn tried to sidestep. ‘I told them what happened — don’t know if that’s damage,’ he said. To be perfectly clear, I repeated myself. ‘You did a lot of damage to the president. I understand that,’ I said. I then pointed at McGahn. ‘You understand that.’ (Emphasis added.)

“I paused. Then I pointed at the West Wing. ‘But he doesn’t understand that,’ I said. ‘You did a lot of damage to the president and only you and I realize it.’ ‘I damaged the office of the president; I damaged the office,’ he said, in recognition that a White House counsel speaking so freely with investigators was highly unusual. His point was that such a precedent would likely make it harder for future presidents to stop investigators from speaking with White House lawyers. But I thought he was still understating the gravity of what he had done.

“There was another pause. Our conversation had quickly turned from personal to professional, from casual to intense. But McGahn wasn’t looking for an exit. At least not yet. Instead, he seemed to want to know what I knew. ‘That’s not it. You damaged him, and he doesn’t understand that,’ I said. ‘It amazes me that he never understood why you really went in there and how extraordinary your cooperation has been.’

“He again tried to downplay what he had done. All was quiet for a moment, and then I added, ‘We’re going to have to write this at some point.’ McGahn did not like that. The idea of a New York Times story chronicling the extent of the White House counsel’s cooperation, going so far as to note that the special counsel felt as if he were ‘running’ McGahn, would be devastating for his relationship with this most mercurial president. McGahn hinted at what we both knew: If the president realized the severity of what his own lawyer had done, he could be fired.

“‘I told him that I understood the concerns about his job, but that that would not factor into our decision about whether or when to publish the story. Just then, sheets of rain. My time was up. In the downpour, we shook hands.

“‘I’ll be in touch,’ I said, loud enough to cut through the storm. ‘This is the last time we ever talk,’ he responded with a smile as he turned and walked away.”

My favorite character in “Donald Trump V. The United States” is Rod Rosenstein, who, for the longest time, was seen as the good guy, the reasonable institutionalist who, as Attorney General Sessions’ deputy, would maintain the justice part of the Department of Justice.

For instance: “Rosenstein probably would not have been Comey’s first choice for the position, but considering Comey’s view of Trump’s inability to recruit ‘good people,’ Rosenstein represented a substantial improvement from the norm. Comey thought that Rosenstein might provide cover as he confronted a president who probably did not like him, and a president with little understanding that law enforcement and politics don’t mix.

“‘As soon as Rod gets here, we’re going to be okay,’ Comey told Patrice [his wife]. ‘Rod knows the system. He’s been an AUSA, he knows the FBI’s role, and so we are so much better off with someone like that than a politician who doesn’t understand. Rod will protect us, Rod will wall us off, Rod will be the buffer.’”

Remember Jim Comey’s resistance to President Trump’s insistence that he protect Michael Flynn, that he pledge his loyalty? Here’s Rosenstein when told the White House wanted to fire Comey: “McGahn was surprised by how Sessions and, especially, Rosenstein seemed eager to fire Comey. For McGahn, Rosenstein’s endorsement of the move was key to assuring him there would never be any legitimate claim that in axing Comey, Trump was trying to obstruct an investigation. Because of Sessions’s recusal, Rosenstein was now the top Justice Department official overseeing the Russia investigation … Not only was Rosenstein not signaling there was a problem, but he seemed enthusiastic about ousting Comey …

“Some say Trump suggested that Rosenstein write a new memo laying out why he believed Comey should be fired. Others say Rosenstein, wanting to please Trump, offered on his own to write a memo rationalizing the dismissal …”

Like Patrice Comey, I read Rosenstein all wrong: “‘I thought Rod was our savior,’ Patrice said. ‘But Rod must have been a very dishonest person.’” (Emphasis added.)

Sadly, the book was done before we learned about Rosenstein’s largely unknown and despicable role in family separation and caging of kids from Central America. Still, I’m very grateful for Schmidt’s revelation that it was Rosenstein who determined the trajectory of the Mueller investigation. And it’s clear that so many mistakenly relied on Rosenstein.

Thanks to Schmidt’s friendship with Dan Richman, a Columbia Law School professor and friend of Jim Comey, he had broken the story of Comey’s loyalty dinner with Trump. Still there was never-ending major pressure on the New York Times and on Schmidt to keep up with the work being done by the Washington Post: “The story about the loyalty dinner had made it easier for us to forget the harsh reality that had set in around us at the Times. As we covered the biggest political and national security story of our lives, we were lagging behind our rivals at The Washington Post …[who] broke a story that Trump had disclosed highly sensitive intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in an Oval Office meeting on the day after he had fired Comey. In fact, the president had bragged to Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak that the firing would now lift the cloud of the Russia investigation …”

A palpable fear was setting in that the Trump story was really getting away from us, and we had quietly begun to point fingers at each other about whose fault it was … [We were] looking for a story that we could use to strike back at the Post.”

As we all try to understand what happened to the efforts to hold President Trump accountable, Schmidt tells us about a critical May 16, 2017, meeting between Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe: “McCabe told Rosenstein that the bureau had opened an investigation into whether the president was a Russian agent and whether Trump had obstructed justice … Rosenstein asked McCabe to describe what the Russia part of the Trump investigation entailed. McCabe explained to Rosenstein that it was a counterintelligence investigation that would examine the president’s ties to Russia, and determine whether Trump posed a national security threat to the United States …

“[And] that the FBI had opened an investigation the previous year – the one code-named Crossfire Hurricane – into whether the Trump campaign had worked with the Russian government to interfere in the election … Nearly a year into that investigation, they had found no real evidence of such collusion. But during the campaign — and more intensely after he became president — Trump had publicly ridiculed the investigation, shown an odd proclivity toward Russia despite its attack on the election, and privately made a series of requests to Comey that appeared designed to curtail the investigation … And now, in firing Comey, Trump may have broken the law by obstructing justice …”

We learn from Schmidt that neither man trusted the other. McCabe was pressing Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel; but what “Rosenstein held back from telling McCabe was that four days earlier, he had asked the former FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, whether he would be interested in taking on the role of special counsel …”

“McCabe thought Rosenstein was unnerved by Trump. Rosenstein often portrayed himself as just a country lawyer who, armed with the Constitution and a good sense of right or wrong, could bring justice to the world. But the torrent of the Trump presidency, foreign interference in the election, and the resulting political fallout was a more noxious mix than anything he had confronted in his career, and it appeared to have frightened him.”

Meanwhile, Rosenstein, according to Schmidt: “believed that the Justice Department and FBI provided far too much information to Congress and worried that McCabe was taking a page from Comey’s playbook and acting on his own … [That] McCabe had conflicts that were potentially clouding his judgment. Trump had berated him and his wife at campaign rallies and on Twitter for taking money from a Clinton ally, helping to sully McCabe’s public image and his standing within the bureau. Trump had then fired his boss, someone for whom McCabe had great respect. And now McCabe had put the president under criminal and counterintelligence investigations.”

Schmidt writes: “If Rosenstein had his way, he would have removed the FBI from the investigation entirely. But that would be nearly impossible … But with the appointment of Mueller, the investigation would now be housed under Rosenstein’s roof. The FBI agents on the investigation would report directly to Mueller, not to McCabe …” (Emphasis added.)

Onto May 21, 2017, when Mueller “met with Rosenstein and McCabe to discuss the investigation … McCabe and Rosenstein began arguing in front of Mueller. McCabe told Rosenstein that he needed to recuse himself from the investigation, due to his role in firing Comey. Rosenstein shot back, saying that McCabe was the one who needed to recuse himself … McCabe, angered by Rosenstein’s comments, got up and left the meeting. Once Rosenstein and Mueller were alone, the special counsel tried to find a middle ground by saying he would still bring FBI agents onto his team but that they would report directly to him, not McCabe …”

As for McGahn, who, in retrospect, should have kept running, here are excerpts from Schmidt’s New York Times story on McGahn’s cooperation: “The White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, has cooperated extensively in the special counsel investigation, sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice, including some that investigators would not have learned of otherwise, according to a dozen current and former White House officials and others briefed on the matter …

“In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s fury toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged Mr. McGahn to respond to it … It is not clear that Mr. Trump appreciates the extent to which Mr. McGahn has cooperated with the special counsel …”

Like Comey, McGahn learned he was about to be canned from others: from Chief of Staff John Kelly, who learned from Twitter that the president was now done with McGahn. His final act was successfully steering the Kavanaugh appointment to the Supreme Court.

Schmidt invites us into the Attorney General’s Conference Room on March 5, 2019, where Mueller and William Barr and aides met “to discuss how Mueller would be concluding his twenty-two-month-long investigation.”

“The new attorney general thought Trump and his campaign had been unfairly tainted by the Russia investigation, and he knew that, more than anything, Trump wanted to have the cloud of the investigation lifted and to be exonerated. Those goals became Barr’s reason for being once in office … I learned in reporting for this book that senior Justice Department officials were deeply concerned at the time that Mueller’s report would essentially turn into an impeachment referral that could drive Trump from office … Mueller had come to the meeting with a Marine’s sensibility — focused on doing right by the honorable work of his team of prosecutors and investigators who, under near-constant and withering public attacks from the president and his allies, had indicted thirty-four individuals and secured six guilty pleas and one other conviction …”

“But it would not be a fair fight. Barr was as vibrant, smart, funny, and cunning as he had ever been. But Mueller seemed to be a shell of his former self … Barr controlled how the report would be released, giving him some ability to sculpt the narrative’s findings, influence how its conclusions would be interpreted and understood, and shape the ultimate outcome for Trump.”

By now we all know Mueller believed that, given the stricture against indicting a sitting president, and his belief that suggesting the president had obstructed justice without an indictment and the opportunity to contest those charges in court was inherently unfair. And so, on the issues of obstruction, Mueller deferred to Congress.

“As it would turn out, Barr’s spin of the report — and Mueller’s determination to let the report speak for itself — would establish a popular narrative of the report’s contents that was highly favorable to Trump …”

Donald Trump and Bill Barr, May 22, 2019. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Sadly, by the time Mueller realized he had been outmaneuvered by Barr, it was too late: “Barr told lawmakers that it did not matter what Mueller wanted; Mueller worked for Barr, and it was up to the attorney general to decide what was released … The Special Counsel found no evidence that any Americans — including anyone associated with the Trump campaign — conspired or coordinated with the Russian government or the IRA [Internet Research Agency] in carrying out this illegal scheme, Barr said. Put another way, the special counsel found no collusion by any Americans in the IRA’s illegal activity.”

And now Schmidt shares some of the critical information few Americans realize:

It would take me a year to put together the pieces of what I believe is one of the most important parts of the report: what it did not contain … Over nearly two hundred pages, Mueller’s team took on the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice. But nowhere in the unredacted version of the report was there a thorough examination of Trump’s ties to Russia. The report did examine whether members of the campaign broke the law for conspiring with the Russians and found no evidence of a criminal offense. But the report said nothing about whether Trump posed a threat to national security or whether his long-standing ties to Russia were problematic … I spoke to several people involved in the Mueller investigation. They told me that investigators never undertook a significant examination of Trump’s personal and business ties to Russia.” (Emphasis added.)

In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller engaged in an exchange with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois that captures what can only be described as a profound failure to present the full picture of Trump’s ties to Russia:

“You described your report as ‘detailing a criminal investigation,’ correct?” asked Krishnamoorthi.
“Yes,” Mueller answered.
“Director, since it was outside the purview of your investigation, your report did not reach counterintelligence conclusions regarding the subject matter of your report?” Krishnamoorthi asked.
“That’s true,” Mueller said.
“For instance, since it was outside your purview, your report did not reach counterintelligence conclusions regarding any Trump administration officials who might potentially be vulnerable to compromise of blackmail by Russia, correct?” Krishnamoorthi asked.
“Those decisions probably were made in the FBI,” Mueller said.
“But not in your report, correct?” asked Krishnamoorthi.
“Not in our report. We avert to the counterintelligence goals of our investigation which were secondary to any criminal wrongdoing that we could find,” Mueller said.
“Let’s talk about one administration official in particular, namely President Donald Trump. Other than Trump Tower Moscow, your report does not address or detail the president’s financial ties or dealings with Russia, correct?” Krishnamoorthi said.
“Correct,” Mueller said.
“Similarly, since it was outside your purview your report does not address the question of whether Russian oligarchs engaged in money laundering through any of the president’s businesses, correct?” Krishnamoorthi asked.
“Correct,” Mueller said.
“And, of course, your office did not obtain the president’s tax returns, which could otherwise show foreign financial sources, correct?” asked Krishnamoorthi.
“I’m not going to speak to that,” Mueller said.
“In July 2017, the president said his personal finances were off limits, or outside the purview of your investigation and he drew a ‘red line,’ around his personal finances,” Krishnamoorthi asked, referring to our 2017 interview with Trump in the Oval Office. “Were the president’s personal finances outside the purview of your investigation?”
“I’m not going to get into that,” Mueller said.”

Here’s what we all missed. Andrew McCabe thought they had protected their investigation by maneuvering Rod Rosenstein into appointing Mueller, but what he and most observers didn’t understand is that Rosenstein used Mueller to effectively sideline McCabe and the FBI: “in handing off the investigation from McCabe to Mueller, Rosenstein had suspended the counterintelligence investigation into Trump. He believed that the decision by McCabe and the top counterintelligence investigators at the FBI to open the inquiry into whether Trump was a Russian agent in the first place had been precipitous and premature. Without informing McCabe, Rosenstein told Mueller that his investigation should concentrate on whether crimes were committed, and it should not be a fishing expedition into whether Trump was a Russian agent …” (Emphasis added.)

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had basically foreclosed any deeper counter-intelligence inquiry before the investigation even began. And, then there’s the overriding question of how and why it was that a man so many regarded as strong and dedicated to the rule of law, Robert Mueller, had been outfoxed by both Rod Rosenstein and Bill Barr.

Schmidt writes: “Time and again, as we reported on meetings between Mueller’s team and Trump’s lawyers about the president sitting for an interview, we were told that Mueller had been nowhere to be found … I heard more and more about Mueller and the questions percolating inside the Justice Department, the White House, and Mueller’s office about Mueller’s acuity. I learned the details about how in the March meeting with Barr, Mueller’s hands shook, and he struggled to articulate his team’s conclusions.”

The champion we imagined and hoped for was seriously injured and Barr took every advantage.

Then, having successfully undermined the impact of the Mueller investigation, Barr turned his attention back to Hillary Clinton, and the investigators who dared to investigate the president.

Schmidt reminds us: “in the opening months of the job, Barr began to drop hints about his view of the Russia investigation. In the fall of 2017, he told the Times that he saw more reason for the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton for her alleged involvement in a uranium deal that was approved during her tenure in the State Department — a conspiracy pushed by the author Peter Schweizer of Clinton Cash fame — than there was reason to investigate alleged collusion between Trump and Russia.”

And “By asking the judge to drop the Flynn case, Barr was finally accomplishing what Trump had asked Comey to do on the twenty-sixth day of his presidency. ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,’ Trump had said back in February 2017. Now Barr had.”

Schmidt concludes: “The president had bent Washington to his will.”