White House Counsel Don McGahn recused his entire staff last summer from working on the Russia investigation because many of his office’s lawyers played significant roles in key episodes at the center of the probe, former White House attorney Ty Cobb said on Wednesday.
McGahn made the decision to halt his staff’s interactions with Special Counsel Robert Mueller because many of his own attorneys “had been significant participants” surrounding the firings of national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey, Cobb said.
“The White House made a decision to recuse his entire office,” Cobb said during a panel discussion hosted by George Mason University in Northern Virginia.
The former Trump White House lawyer explained that McGahn’s recusal was a key reason for why he was hired last summer to manage President Donald Trump’s official response on the Russia case, including filling Mueller’s requests for documents and arranging interviews current and former White House aides.
While it’s been widely known that McGahn handed over day-to-day responsibilities to Cobb when he started working in the White House last July, neither of the Trump lawyers had ever specified that the entire White House legal office had been recused from the Russia probe in its entirety.
“It tells us how deeply rooted this scandal is in every different part of the White House,” said Norm Eisen, a former top Obama White House ethics attorney in the audience for Cobb’s remarks.
But Eisen, a frequent critic of the Trump administration, also praised McGahn’s recusal decision as the right one to make from an ethical standpoint. “It’s like a ray of sunshine when you learn they did the right thing,” he said.
McGahn and at least two of his top aides, chief of staff Ann Donaldson and former senior associate counsel James Burnham, have sat for interviews with Mueller.
McGahn himself was questioned by the special counsel for his role in Flynn’s firing last February, as well as Comey’s ouster that May. He’s also explained Trump’s request to try to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe.
A White House spokesman and an attorney for McGahn did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cobb spent nearly 10 months as the lead White House lawyer working on the official response to the Russia probe before his retirement in May. In his job, he often drew criticism from the president’s allies for spearheading a more cooperative approach to the Mueller investigation.
Since Cobb’s departure, Trump and his new lead outside attorney Rudy Giuliani have escalated their campaign to challenge the special counsel directly. On Twitter, the president frequently calls the investigation a “Witch Hunt Hoax.”
Cobb’s remarks about McGahn’s recusal came during a panel discussion about the rise of polarization in politics at the university’s Antonin Scalia Law School – a topic that the former White House lawyer said will be hard to reverse anytime soon.
“I think it’s a question of trying to limit the damage at this stage of the game and maybe there will be a turnaround in another generation, but it’s a death spiral to the bottom at this stage of the game,” Cobb said.