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'People Around The President Are Trying To Stop Him,' 'Times' Journalist Says

Sep 2, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 2:14 pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt says one of the most unusual aspects of the White House administration is the existence of people who are trying to stop President Trump from acting in a way that could hurt the country or break the law.

"In our history as a country, we've largely focused on how our presidents use their power, how the people around them help them do that and what that says," Schmidt says. "In this instance of the Trump presidency, Trump's use of power is so unusual that we have a phenomenon here where the people around the president are trying to stop him."

Schmidt's new book, Donald Trump v. The United States, focuses on two figures in particular who stood up to the president: former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Schmidt describes McGahn as "the most fascinating character of the Trump era." In June 2017, when Trump wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, McGahn pushed back, threatening to quit rather than to order the Justice Department to dismiss Mueller.

Less than a year later, in April 2018, the president considered ordering the Justice Department to prosecute Comey and political adversary Hillary Clinton. Again, McGahn warned Trump that such a move could be grounds for impeachment.

"Every time Trump wanted to do something crazy McGahn wasn't cowering in the corner," Schmidt says. "McGahn had a very good antenna for what a prosecutor may think of what Trump was trying to do and [how] the public and politics would see those actions."

McGahn also had a hand in other aspects of the Trump presidency, most notably the appointment of conservative judges, including Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But McGahn's eventual cooperation with the Mueller investigation did not sit well with the president. McGahn's time at the White House ended in the fall of 2018 — a parting Trump announced via tweet.

"For McGahn, it was sort of an example of the way that Trump treats people around him," Schmidt says. "McGahn had done all of these things for the president. He had stopped Trump from hurting himself. He had been in charge of the judges. And I think McGahn wanted to go out on his own terms and had been talking to Trump about that. But here, via tweet, he was finding out that he was done."


Interview Highlights

Penguin Random House

On McGahn's role in stacking the courts

He was in charge of the president's politically most important thing, which, I think, is the judges, because they created an umbilical cord between Trump and his base that I believe allowed conservatives to put up with behavior from the president that they normally wouldn't, because Trump was stacking the courts with conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, that were going to have an impact on the country for decades. That was McGahn's baby.

On uncovering memos McGahn wrote after Trump suggested prosecuting Hillary Clinton and James Comey

He figures out ... a way to stop that, a way to slow walk the president at the same time that he's protecting himself. And he writes these memos to the president that lay out how this is a terrible idea and how he's advising that he not do this. And the president probably doesn't even have the power to do this. ...

I found these memos, uncovered these memos ... about how McGahn is essentially telling Trump, if you mess with the Justice Department, if you even appear to be messing with the Justice Department, you are going to face enormous consequences. You could be impeached. These cases could be thrown out, people at the Justice Department could quit, and ultimately the American people hold the answer to this in the ballot box — and you could be voted out of office for looking like you're politicizing the incredibly important work of justice.

On why McGahn cooperated as a witness in the Mueller Investigation

When McGahn goes in and he sits down with Mueller's team, McGahn realizes that he has to do everything he can to be forthcoming with them. Every witness has to be forthcoming with investigators. They have to tell the truth. They have to tell the full story. But McGahn is essentially there and saying, Look, these prosecutors need to hear from me everything first, because I don't think I did anything wrong. And they have a potentially enormous amount of leverage over me. They could write a report. They may write a report that lays out my behavior. I need to be the first one in the door to tell them about anything because I'm in a very vulnerable position.

And what happens is that they end up with this incredible witness, someone who has credibility, someone who has access and who has a very good ability to recall the facts and including writing notes in memos to himself between him and his chief of staff that document these conversations. In an investigation, that type of witness is hugely consequential. And in this case, the president's lawyer was that person against the president.

On Trump's tendency to demand loyalty at all cost from his advisers

Trump, in many ways, is sort of this human MRI machine where he sort of is able to come and reveal what is inside of someone and what motivates them and what they are willing to do. - Michael Schmidt

It puts these people around him in the situation where they sort of have to choose. Are they going to do everything that he says? Are they going to do some of the things that he says, or are they just going to quit? And what are these different people's tolerances for Trump's behavior and what they're willing to do? Trump, in many ways, is sort of this human MRI machine where he sort of is able to come and reveal what is inside of someone and what motivates them and what they are willing to do. [Former White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly sticks around until he basically figures out: I can't do this anymore. I can't do it. ... [And] I just don't have the ability to continue this effort.

So that is the thing about Trump ... what he puts the people around him through and how they have to make these decisions, these calculations about what's important to them. To McGahn, he had a never-again opportunity to remake the court. No president would give one person so much sway over the people [they] are putting on their court. In previous administrations, there'd be panels of folks that would look at resumes and go through this whole process. But McGahn had it all streamlined, and he could essentially pick the judges. So he's a huge believer in that. And because of that, [he] puts up with things that most people in Washington probably wouldn't.

On the final sentence of his book: "The president had bent Washington to his will"

On Feb. 14 of 2017, less than a month into the presidency, Donald Trump clears the Oval Office and he asked Jim Comey to end the [Michael] Flynn investigation. Jim Comey makes a memo about this. And then that May, after Comey [is] fired, I write a story about that memo and it creates such an eruption in Washington. The following day, Mueller is appointed, and it looks like he's going to be doing this massive investigation of the president. The disclosure at the time that Trump had asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation really shook the ground, and it really put Trump on a different footing and this story on a path unlike any other, because it looked like it was a president trying to use his power to protect himself.

This past spring, the president's attorney general, Bill Barr, went to court and asked the court to throw out Mike Flynn's guilty plea. In that sense, the president's Justice Department was asking the court to end the Flynn investigation. And if you've watched this story, you can't help but look at that and say Donald Trump bent Washington to his will. He got his own Justice Department to do what Jim Comey wouldn't do in the first month of his presidency.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR I'm Terry Gross. There are still many unanswered questions about Donald Trump's personal and business ties to Russia and whether that has compromised him and made him a threat to national security. The Mueller investigation did not report any such ties, but a new book by my guest Michael Schmidt reveals that the Justice Department secretly took steps to curtail an investigation into Trump's long-standing personal and business ties to Russia. This is just one of the revelations in Schmidt's new book, "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President."

The struggle referred to in the title is the efforts of some of Trump's top aides and officials in the executive branch to prevent Trump from abusing his power and violating the law. Schmidt says these are individuals who were uncertain whether Trump was acting in the interest of his country, his ego, his family business or Russia. The book focuses on two figures who stood up to Trump - former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn became a chief witness against Trump in the Mueller investigation.

Michael Schmidt is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He's broken several major stories about Trump and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. His new book is based on over 1,000 documents from across the federal government that had never been made public before, as well as hundreds of hours of interviews with current and former senior government officials and others outside the government involved with the story.

Michael Schmidt, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Can you explain what then-acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did to curtail an investigation into Donald Trump's personal and business connections to Russia?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: To understand this, we have to go back to May of 2017. That's the time where all of this investigating of Trump begins. Trump fires Comey. The FBI takes the extraordinary decision of opening up a two-pronged investigation into the president. Did the president obstruct justice in the firing? And is the president a counterintelligence threat to the United States because of his long-standing personal and business ties to the country. Is the president potentially compromised by this adversary? And what happens is is that the FBI does this unilaterally.

And the acting FBI director - acting because Comey had just been fired - goes and tells Rosenstein this. And Rosenstein is taken aback by this. He wonders, how is it that the FBI can open up such a monumental investigation on the president? And the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, is pushing Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to conduct this investigation and the broader investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

Rosenstein takes that move. He appoints Mueller. McCabe sits down, briefs Mueller on these investigations into Trump. And McCabe believes, based on the fact that Rosenstein is not raising any questions, that Mueller will head off and conduct these investigations that McCabe believes are the most important ones he's ever opened in his life into the president. But what McCabe did not know at the time is that when Rosenstein sits down with Mueller to tell him what to do, to essentially task him, he says, go conduct a criminal investigation into the 2016 election interference. And what that did was is it set Mueller on a path to conduct a criminal investigation. And the counterintelligence question, the questions about Trump's long-standing ties to Russia, that part does not get done. But Rosenstein never told McCabe this.

GROSS: Why do you think Rosenstein never told McCabe?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. The first is that Rosenstein thought that the FBI was acting far too hastily. He thought that they had moved too quickly, and that there was not enough evidence to take such a big move to investigate whether the president was working for our foreign adversary. The second thing is that he thought McCabe may have conflicts of interests. The FBI was reeling. Comey had just been fired. The president had attacked McCabe's wife publicly for money that a campaign she had run for a state office in Virginia had taken. And he thinks that the FBI is essentially out of control. And what he doesn't do is he doesn't go back to them and say, hey, you know, that investigation that you opened that you guys believe is the most consequential national security investigation you've opened in your lives? I don't think there's enough there. And the issue isn't really litigated.

GROSS: So Rosenstein ended up engineering things so that no one was looking into Donald Trump's personal and business ties to Russia and whether he posed a threat to national security. Was that his intention, do you think, to prevent anyone from looking into it outside of journalists? Of course, there was eventually the, you know, the intelligence committees. But just in terms of, you know, like, the...

SCHMIDT: No, no. What you're saying is this. You're saying, if we're watching this story, there's probably no one better to go do that investigation than Robert Mueller. So why is it that Robert Mueller didn't do this? Why is it that Rosenstein wouldn't want him to do this? Let's try and look at it from Rosenstein's perspective. Rosenstein had been a part of Ken Starr's investigation, had studied what Ken Starr's investigation had done and did not want this to turn into a fishing expedition. He was not convinced that there was enough here to take Donald Trump's life dating back decades - his business ties sprawled out across the globe - and look at them to see in every little nook and cranny whether there was some type of Russia connection. And he wanted this to be done quickly. And he wanted it to be done in the criminal investigative form. And he sent Mueller on that path.

GROSS: Do you think that many people assumed that the absence of evidence of Trump's personal and business ties to Russia, as reported by the Mueller investigation, proved that there was no problem with those ties?

SCHMIDT: I don't know what it proved. But I don't think it brought clarity to a question that a significant portion of the country has. I think that people have been very confused about a lot of this, about, what is this whole Russia question? And what has been looked at? And what does it mean? And what do we know? The bottom line as we head into the 2020 election, I cannot point to you and say, hey, here is a group of experienced investigative folks who had the tools of subpoenas and search warrants and badges and guns that were able to go and do a thorough investigation of this question. I just don't have that to point to.

GROSS: Well, thank you for explaining all of that. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schmidt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is called "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's broken many stories about Donald Trump. He breaks more stories in his new book, "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President."

Your new book focuses on two people in the administration who stood up to Trump. One is former FBI Director James Comey, and the other's former White House counsel Don McGahn. I want to focus on McGahn because I think most of us know less about him than we do about Comey. Give us some background on McGahn.

SCHMIDT: Don McGahn to me is probably the most fascinating character of the Trump era. Here's why. Don McGahn did three things that I think are remarkable. He was in charge of the president's politically most important thing, which I think is the judges, because it created an umbilical cord between Trump and his base that I believe allowed conservatives to put up with behavior from the president that they normally wouldn't because Trump was stacking the courts with conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh that were going to have an impact on the country for decades. That was McGahn's baby. He spent enormous amount of time on that. And he made sure that the judges they were nominating were of a certain type, that they would be looking at the law in a way that would have a huge impact for years to come. So he's in charge of that.

The second thing is that McGahn was a container of Trump. He was one of the people around the president stopping Trump from doing things that could hurt Trump, could hurt the presidency, could hurt the country, could break the law. McGahn is one of the people in the room saying, no, I don't think you should do that. And that - trying to stop the president - is just such a unique thing because in our history as a country, we've largely focused on how our presidents use their power, how the people around them help them do that and what that says.

In this instance of the Trump presidency, Trump's use of power is so unusual that we have a phenomenon here where the people around the president are trying to stop him. McGahn is one of those people. So what is that like? What is it like to try and stop a president? What is that human experience like. McGahn is one of those people.

The third thing is that McGahn becomes a chief witness as a lawyer against his client in an existential threat to the presidency. In the Mueller investigation, he is a chief witness against the president and is receiving near real-time requests from investigators about what his client, the president, is saying behind closed doors.

GROSS: So let's talk about some of the things that McGahn was asked to do by Trump that McGahn thought were either an abuse of power or breaking the law. There's a couple of things that you could - I think that you could define as obstruction of justice. Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller, and McGahn tried to talk him out of it. Trump tried to get McGahn to prevent Jeff Sessions, who is then attorney general, from recusing himself on the investigation. And then McGahn tried to stop Trump from firing Sessions for recusing himself. So what - did you learn anything especially interesting about what went on between McGahn and Trump during those attempts of McGahn to stop Trump?

SCHMIDT: The thing about McGahn is that McGahn believed in Trump-ism, I think maybe more than Trump did. He believed in the populism. He believed in the need for the judges. He's a true conservative believer. And McGahn was not offended by Trump. He wasn't offended by Trump's behavior. He liked the fact that Trump wanted to break things. And every time that Trump wanted to do something crazy, McGahn wasn't cowering in the corner. But McGahn had a very good antenna for what a prosecutor may think of what Trump was trying to do and what the public and politics would see those actions as.

And McGahn time and time again is like, why does the president want to do these things? Why does the president want to fire Robert Mueller? If we do that, we're just going to get ourselves in more trouble. And this is just going to get worse and worse and worse. And McGahn is constantly being asked to do these things. And he's saying to himself, why does the president want to do this? And ultimately realizes that if he starts to do these things, he himself is going to get into trouble. He knows that previous White House counsels, whether it was Bernard Nussbaum or John Dean, got themselves into trouble in these types of situations when they started digging for the president and doing things for the president.

And McGahn realizes that at the heart of all this is a never-again lifetime opportunity to remake the courts. So he's like, I'm not going to get caught up in this. The president wants to fire Mueller. I'm not going to do this. The president wants to fire Sessions. I'm not going to do this.

And it builds and it builds and it builds. And it builds to this moment in April of 2018 in which Trump says that he wants to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey, and that he wants to order the Justice Department to do it. And if the Justice Department doesn't want to do it, he wants to do it. And McGahn immediately realizes the problems in this. But he's been at the game of sort of taming Trump for over a year now, and he figures out a way to stop that, a way to slow walk the president at the same time that he's protecting himself. And he writes these memos to the president that lay out how this is a terrible idea and how he's advising that he not do this and the president probably doesn't even have the power to do this.

So I found these memos, uncovered these memos. And I write about them, and I write about how McGahn is essentially telling Trump, if you mess with the Justice Department - if you even appear to be messing with the Justice Department, you are going to face enormous consequences. You could be impeached; these cases could be thrown out; people at the Justice Department could quit. And ultimately, the American people hold the answer to this in the ballot box, and you could be voted out of office for looking like you're politicizing the incredibly important work of justice.

GROSS: And in writing these memos to the president, he's not only advising the president - he's keeping a record that says, I told the president not to do it so that he is no longer responsible if the president breaks the law or the code of ethics.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. But you're probably wondering something else here, which is that - why is he still there? Why, if he's caught up in all of these things, is he still there? If his client, the president, is doing all this stuff that he thinks is a bad idea - if he's under this pressure from these prosecutors, why is he still there? And that's the question about McGahn that I searched and searched and searched to answer, which is that, how does he put up with all of this pain and danger - walking the tightrope here - to do this? And he does it because he believes so much in the politics and the judges.

And in the spring of 2018, he can hear in Kennedy's voice during the oral arguments at the court that he thinks Kennedy is going to leave. McGahn's lawyer is saying to him - McGahn has his own lawyer 'cause he's caught up in this investigation. The lawyer's saying, hey, man, you got to get out of there. The Mueller report's going to come out. Trump's going to see that you're a chief witness against him. This is pretty dangerous. McGahn is a fairly young guy. He has a whole second career ahead of him. You've got to protect your law license. Just get out of there. Get to a law firm, and go back to making money.

But McGahn thinks that Kennedy might retire, and McGahn has a good relationship with Kennedy. And McGahn realizes that if he stays there that Kennedy is more likely to retire because Kennedy knows that if McGahn's there, Trump is far less likely to put a wrecking ball on the court. He's far less likely to nominate a Fox News legal analyst to be a judge. As ridiculous as that sounds, that's not so far-fetched. And McGahn says, if I can get through the spring and I can get through the end of June - the end of the Supreme Court term - I will know whether Kennedy is going to retire. And if Kennedy retires, I'll get another shot at putting someone on the Supreme Court. And I can be in charge of that process. And he puts up with the pain and stays to find out the answer to that.

GROSS: And he recommends Brett Kavanaugh to Trump. And when the story breaks that Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual assault, then McGahn tells Kavanaugh, you have to really fight back. You have to be angry, and you have to fight hard. This is like the fight of your life. And we saw the results of that (laughter) entering the confirmation hearings.

SCHMIDT: McGahn is the person in the room with Kavanaugh during the hearings - in the rooms where they're preparing. And he's coaching Kavanaugh through the process. And he tells Kavanaugh that he has to go out and act very angry and push back on this. That's his only choice if he is going to win here, essentially - if he is going to get put on the court. And it's truly McGahn's last stand. He has gone through all of this stuff with Trump. Trump has asked him to do all of this stuff. Trump has berated him, belittled him. He's lived through the craziness of the first six months in office, where Reince Priebus was the chief of staff. He's dealt with Trump telling him to do things that could have destroyed McGahn's life. And here he is about to lose, essentially, the Kavanaugh nomination. And that would be McGahn's legacy. If Kavanaugh had gone down, that would have been probably the thing that people most associated with McGahn. And there was no way that they were going to get another judge like Kavanaugh on the court if Kavanaugh had failed.

GROSS: I think we have to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times Michael Schmidt. He's written a new book called "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President."

We'll be back after this break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's broken many stories about Trump, and he breaks more stories in his new book, "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." It focuses on two people in the administration who stood up to Trump and tried to rein him in and prevent him from abusing his powers as president and from breaking the law. Those two people are former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn became a major witness in the Mueller investigation.

Don McGahn was worried about his own legal exposure, so he started memorializing everything that happened between him and Trump so that he'd have a record of how he tried to prevent Trump from violating the law or abusing his presidential power and that McGahn wouldn't be held legally responsible for any violations. McGahn also got his own lawyer, William Burck, who'd represented other witnesses in the Mueller investigation, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Pompeo. So why did McGahn start cooperating with the Mueller investigation? And did they have an agreement about how that would work and what the boundaries would be?

SCHMIDT: So the Mueller investigation is looking at whether the president obstructed justice. And they come to McGahn and want to talk to him. And to McGahn's surprise, Trump and his lawyers - Trump's lawyers are encouraging McGahn to go in. And he does not understand why they're doing that. Why are they allowing the person closest to the president who knows what the president is saying behind closed doors to talk to investigators, investigators who have enormous public pressure on them to stop the president and who are almost certainly going to look at the president's actions as potentially obstruction of justice? And McGahn just - he doesn't get it. And he thinks that they may be setting him up to take the fall, that if Trump gets accused of obstructing justice, he's going to say, look, I was just listening to what McGahn was telling me to do. And McGahn's lawyer, Bill Burck, tries to sort of stop this from happening, and he makes the case to Trump's lawyers, hey, are you guys sure what you're doing here? Are you sure you know what Don may say? Oh, no, no, no, go in. So when McGahn goes in and he sits down with Mueller's team, McGahn realizes that he has to do everything he can to be forthcoming with them.

Look, every witness has to be forthcoming with investigators. They have to tell the truth. They have to tell the full story. But McGahn is essentially there and saying, look, these prosecutors need to hear from me, everything, first because I don't think I did anything wrong, and they have potentially enormous amount of leverage over me. They could write a report. They may write a report that lays out my behavior. I need to be the first one in the door to tell them about anything because I'm in a very vulnerable position. And what happens is that they end up with this incredible witness, someone who has credibility, someone who has access and who has a very good ability to recall the facts and including writing notes and memos to himself between him and his chief of staff that document these conversations. In an investigation, that type of witness is hugely consequential. And in this case, the president's lawyer was that person against the president.

GROSS: In spite of all the objections that Don McGahn had about Trump's behavior and things that Trump was doing that abused presidential power, McGahn stayed because he thought Kennedy - Justice Kennedy might leave and McGahn wanted a chance to nominate another justice, which he succeeded in doing with Brett Kavanaugh. And then after that, Trump basically fired him on Twitter without telling McGahn or without telling Trump's own chief of staff at the time, John Kelly. Tell us about what you learned about McGahn's reaction to that.

SCHMIDT: So it's the end of the summer of 2018. Mcgahn is in the midst of the Kavanaugh nomination. It's obviously gone off track and looks like it may be in peril. And McGahn is trying to figure out how to navigate this, how to get through it. And at the same time, he's starting to have conversations with Trump about leaving because he knows that he's got to go, certainly before the Mueller report comes out. And what happens is that McGahn is sitting in his office one morning, a Monday morning, and John Kelly, the chief of staff, comes busting in the office, and he says, hey, why didn't you tell me? And McGahnn says, what are you talking about? He said, why didn't you tell me you're leaving? And McGahn says, what? What? He says, chief, get out of here. I got a lot of work to do. And Kelly says, no, no. He said, Trump just tweeted that you're leaving. So here's the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel talking about something the president has just tweeted that they found out about. And they look at the tweet, and from the residence, Trump has said that McGahn will be leaving as soon as the Kavanaugh nomination is over. And that's how Don McGahn found out that his White House tenure had come to an end.

GROSS: What was McGahn's reaction to that?

SCHMIDT: I think for McGahn, it was a clear example of Trump sort of wanting the last say, wanting to be the one to say that McGahn was going to leave. It had just come out that McGahn had spent all this time with Mueller's prosecutors. And, apparently, Trump had been complaining a lot about this behind closed doors that he didn't appreciate that this had been going on, and he had some concerns about it. And for McGahn, it was sort of an example of the way that Trump treats people around him. McGahn had done all of these things for the president. He had stopped Trump from hurting himself. He had been in charge of the judges. And I think McGahn wanted to go out on his own terms and had been talking to Trump about that. But here via tweet, he was finding out that he was done.

GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times Michael Schmidt. His new book is called "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's broken many stories about Trump. He breaks more stories in his new book, "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." It focuses on two people who stood up to Trump and tried to prevent him from abusing his powers of president and breaking the law, former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn. Mcgahn became a major witness in the Mueller investigation.

Now, you write that Don McGahn's notes that he handed over to the Mueller investigation provided a roadmap to Trump's obstruction of justice. One example of that - and I think this is a story that you broke in the book - that Trump had asked John Kelly to head the FBI but told Kelly if you accept, you need to pledge your loyalty to me. And Kelly declined to do that and did not become FBI director. Do you want to tell us more about that story? That seems pretty significant.

SCHMIDT: I don't know whether that's in the notes, but what the story is is that Trump fires Comey. He had asked Comey for Comey's his loyalty. He had asked Comey to come out and say that he wasn't under investigation. He'd asked him to end this investigation into his former national security adviser. So Trump fires him, and the next day he calls Kelly, who's his secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. Trump and Kelly at that point don't know each other that well, but Trump needs a new FBI director. And he says to Kelly, I'd like you to be the FBI director, and I need you to be loyal to me. And that obviously has echoes of the overtures that Trump made to Comey. Trump has just gotten rid of his FBI director. There's questions about why he did that. And now here he is trying to find a new one who Trump wants to be loyal to him and only to him. And Kelly says, get lost. I'll be loyal to the Constitution, but I'm not your guy for that kind of thing. And he pushes Trump away, and Trump moves on to find someone else.

But it gives you some insight into what Trump is thinking as he's trying to decide what to do with his open FBI director position and the type of person that he wants in that position. You have to remember, Trump sees lawyers and the folks at the top of the Justice Department and the FBI as people that work for him. The most important thing to him is the loyalty. And he wants someone there who he can trust and essentially that will protect him. And he says as much.

GROSS: This is a question I figure you can't answer, but I'm wondering if you ever wonder if Trump asked William Barr to pledge his loyalty before appointing Barr attorney general.

SCHMIDT: So I don't know anything about that. But the problem is is that when there's disclosures like, hey, he asked Comey for his loyalty and Comey said no and then he fired Comey and, hey, he asked John Kelly to be loyal to him and wanted him to be FBI director and Kelly said no, what it does is it creates a perception that makes you wonder. It's like, well, what did these other people who ended up with that position who became the next FBI director like Chris Wray or who became the attorney general like Bill Barr after Trump fired Jeff Sessions for what Trump openly said was a disloyal move of recusing himself from the Russia investigation and allowing Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel - so what it does is it creates the perception of like, well, what did these people have to do to get these positions?

GROSS: I don't know if you want to give your reaction to this, but what is your reaction to having reported on so many people within the administration who left the administration or were fired by Trump and who reported on so many things that Trump had done that violated the code of ethics, that either violated the law or on the verge of pushing the law and it doesn't seem to register on Trump's base at all?

SCHMIDT: No, and I think it seems to register less and less with the country. I had the opportunity to cover the Comey firing, the aftermath of that and the appointment of Mueller. And in many ways, at the time, it was such a big story - fires the FBI director, these memos from the FBI director come out that shows Trump trying to get loyalty from his FBI director, trying to get the FBI director to end the Flynn investigation, the investigation of his former national security adviser and Robert Mueller is appointed to look at these issues. And what happens is that at the time was sort of the first version of this story, Trump trying to pull - to bend Washington to his will. And what happens is that that story just sort of repeats itself and repeats itself and repeats itself over the past 3 1/2 years. And we've just seen different versions of it. And Trump puts these people around him in a situation where they sort of have to choose. Are they going to do everything that he says? Are they going to do some of the things that he says? Or are they just going to quit? And what are these different people's tolerances for Trump's behavior and what they're willing to do?

Trump, in many ways, is sort of this human MRI machine where he sort of is able to come and reveal sort of what is inside of someone and what motivates them and what they are willing to do. John Kelly sticks around until he basically figures out I can't do this anymore. I can't do it, and I'm maybe not even able to stop this guy, and I just don't have the ability to continue this effort. So that is the thing about Trump that when I wrote this book that I found so interesting, which is that - this just very different human experience of what he puts the people around him through.

GROSS: So, you know, you say that McGahn's notes that he handed over to the Muller investigation basically provided a road map showing how Trump had obstructed justice. And yet Mueller didn't charge Trump with obstruction of justice, and that's largely because of the Justice Department ruling that you can't indict a sitting president. And people have really been puzzling about this, that it makes no sense to see if Trump violated the law when you're not allowed to charge him with a crime. Would there have been a way around that?

SCHMIDT: Well, nothing was preventing Mueller from making a determination about whether the president broke the law. But Mueller thought that that would have been unfair because the president had no way of clearing his name because he couldn't go to court and adjudicate the case because, as president, he could not be indicted. So Mueller thought it was unfair to accuse the president of a crime without a remedy to clear his name.

Now, the thing that sort of doesn't make sense in all that is that the product of this instead is that all of the investigative things that Mueller's team found are taken and they're put in this report, and they're made public. And certainly, when things are made public, it's even a less organized forum than a courtroom to clear your name. So all of these things about Trump are just sort of thrown to Congress and to the media and to the American people, and they sort of figure out what to do with it.

GROSS: Do you think there was a clear-cut case of obstruction of justice against the president?

SCHMIDT: I think in some ways, for many lawyers, it's pretty obvious what Trump was up to. But for others, a lot of this is complicated by the fact that Trump actually is president. So Trump wanted an investigation ended. Many people believe that the president, as the head of the executive branch, could do such a thing. Trump fires his FBI director; it looks like he's done it because the FBI director won't be loyal to him. But as president, many lawyers say, president can pick his FBI director. So the powers of the presidency are braided with Trump's actions in which he may be legally able to take these moves. So it makes it a more complicated case than simply lying under oath or destroying evidence.

Now, some people will say there's evidence in the Mueller report that the president didn't provide accurate answers to Mueller in the questions he had to answer. But that's just a - there's a lot. There were a lot of different questions that were looked at. And in the end, by Mueller not making a determination, it allows the lack of clarity to come. And we're having discussions like this. So it's like, well, Trump made all these different things, and it's sort of confusing, and it's hard. But prosecutors never make the determination. And that allowed Bill Barr, the attorney general, to come in and essentially clear the president.

GROSS: I think we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Schmidt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's broken many stories about Trump and breaks more stories in his new book "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." It's about people inside the administration who tried to stand up to Trump and prevent him from abusing his powers as president or breaking the law. It focuses on two people, former FBI Director James Comey and former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn became a major witness in the Mueller investigation.

You've been trying so hard for years to understand what was happening in the Trump administration, and you're continuing to do that. What did you learn from the Senate Intelligence Committee report that was released in August that you didn't know?

SCHMIDT: So the astounding thing about that document is that it talks about things that may have gone on in Russia when Trump was there two decades and a decade ago and whether the Russians may think that that's kompromat on the president. And it talks about some interactions that Trump may have had with women. It doesn't even establish whether these things happen. It basically just says, here are some things that we found out that the Russians may know. We don't have evidence they have kompromat on him. But even though we are Republicans and Democrats working together on this bipartisan report, we're going to put it out to the public about how Trump could be potentially compromised by the Russians. And it's just astounding to look at these things about Trump's interactions with women in Moscow and whether he was spending time with a former Miss Moscow when he was there or if he went to strip clubs and how the Russians would use such a thing against someone to just kind of throw them out there.

But it just sort of gave you this sense that, like, OK, if this is the Senate Intelligence Committee putting this out there, then, like, what else is there? And if you had someone who was really fully looking at these questions, what else is there? And you know, what do his finances look like? What do his personal relationships look like? I mean, this is the sitting president the United States. This is a Republican-led committee just putting it out there in this thousand-page report.

GROSS: Are you saying that the report raised more questions than it gave answers?

SCHMIDT: Yes. I don't think that it gave us the clarity and the depth of everything about Trump's relationship with Russia. And we just may never have that.

GROSS: So your new book is about people who stood up to Trump and tried to prevent him from abusing the powers of president. The two people who you focus on were forced out of the administration. The final sentence of your book is, the president had bent Washington to his will.

Are there people left in the administration who are willing to stand up to him when he abuses the power of his office?

SCHMIDT: I don't know. I assume so, but I don't know. But what I'm saying, especially in that line, is that on February 14 of 2017, less than a month into the presidency, Donald Trump clears the Oval Office, and he asked Jim Comey to end the Flynn investigation. Jim Comey makes a memo about this. And then that May, after Comey's fired, I write a story about that memo. And it creates such an eruption in Washington, the following day, Mueller is appointed, and it looks like he's going to be doing this massive investigation of the president.

The disclosure at the time that Trump had asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation really shook the ground, and it really put Trump on a different footing and this story on a path unlike any other 'cause it looked like it was a president trying to use his power to protect himself. This past spring, the president's attorney general, Bill Barr, went to court and asked the court to throw out Mike Flynn's guilty plea. In that sense, the president's Justice Department was asking the court to end the Flynn investigation. And if you've watched this story, you can't help but look at that and say, Donald Trump bent Washington to his will. He got his own Justice Department to do what Jim Comey wouldn't do in the first month of his presidency.

GROSS: There is a story that's kind of a sidebar story that I'd love to squeeze into this interview, time permitting. But I emphasize it's time permitting, so I'm going to ask you for the shortest version of this story possible, but I was fascinated by this. Don McGahn's uncle Paddy McGahn was a lawyer and fixer in Atlantic City and was a pretty big figure after gambling was legalized in Atlantic City. And it sounds like if you wanted to build a casino, you needed his help to get it through. And Donald Trump, when Donald Trump was big in Atlantic City with his casinos, worked with Paddy McGahn to get things done. But Trump ended up, as he ends up with a lot of people, suing McGahn. Just give us, like, a taste of that story.

SCHMIDT: So in the process of reporting for the book, I learned that Don McGahn's uncle was the guy around Atlantic City who knew how to pull the levers. And this guy from New York - this young real estate mogul comes down, named Donald Trump, and he wants to have a casino there. And this guy Paddy is the guy who knows how to get things done. And he's pulling the levers, and he's doing that. And then - after lots of successes, Trump thinks he's great - the relationship starts to fall apart. And Paddy starts taking notes on his interactions with Trump because he thinks that Trump's not telling him the truth. He starts bringing along a witness for his meetings with Trump. And eventually, the relationship gets so bad that they're in court suing each other. And I'm thinking, that story sounds sort of familiar.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHMIDT: Don McGahn was the guy who knew how to pull the levers. He knew how to get the judges on the court. He was incredibly powerful and important to Trump. But McGahn started to wonder about Trump, and he starts taking notes. And he starts building a record to protect himself. And the relationship falls apart. And Donald Trump and Don McGahn didn't end up in court together, but there's dozens of pages in the Mueller report based on things that Don McGahn told them (ph). So if you're looking to tell the story, that's a pretty important historical parallel.

GROSS: Michael Schmidt, I thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on your reporting and the new book.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Michael Schmidt is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "Donald Trump V. The United States." We recorded our interview Monday morning, soon after a federal appeals court rejected the effort by Bill Barr's Justice Department to shut down the criminal case against Michael Flynn. Also Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that the House of Representatives can't sue Don McGahn to force him to comply with a congressional subpoena.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear from two Emmy nominees. Kerry Washington has four nominations, including two for "Little Fires Everywhere." Ramy Youssef has two nominations for his semi-autobiographical comedy series, "Ramy," in which he plays the son of Egyptian immigrants who surprise his friends by actually being an observant Muslim - but not observant about everything. The Primetime Emmys will be announced September 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "EAT THAT QUESTION")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK ZAPPA'S "EAT THAT QUESTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.