The White House has blocked a third witness who provided crucial testimony to former special counsel Robert Mueller from describing the chaos she witnessed in the West Wing as President Donald Trump sought to assert control over the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“The White House has directed that I not respond to this question because of the constitutionally-based executive branch confidentiality interests that are implicated,” former top White House aide Annie Donaldson repeated more than 200 times in written responses to the House Judiciary Committee, according to a transcript released Monday.
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Donaldson, who served as then-White House Counsel Don McGahn’s top deputy, provided Mueller with some of his most damaging evidence that Trump sought to interfere in the Russia probe, which the FBI launched in 2016 and, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, was assumed by Mueller and his team. But she declined to elaborate on that testimony, even as she repeatedly said in her responses that she had no reason to dispute Mueller’s characterization of her account.
Donaldson also told the committee that she couldn’t “independently” recall a slew of episodes that Mueller’s report described and noted she hadn’t reviewed her notes or prior testimony to Mueller before answering the committee’s questions.
Donaldson was among a handful of central witnesses in Mueller’s investigation who provided evidence that Trump may have obstructed justice. The White House had already blocked two others — McGahn and former top adviser Hope Hicks — from providing substantive testimony about their tenure in the White House.
Donaldson struck a deal last month with the Judiciary Committee that allowed her to submit answers to questions in writing, rather than appear immediately for public testimony, because Donaldson was pregnant and it was difficult for her to travel to Washington. She lives and works in Alabama.
Under the terms of the agreement, the committee reserved the right to bring Donaldson in for public testimony after Nov. 1.
Donaldson didn’t go as far as Hicks in refusing to discuss elements of her White House tenure. She repeatedly affirmed general recollections about certain conversations that took place and incidents that occurred in the West Wing.
For example, when the committee asked Donaldson about whether Trump’s former aide Rob Porter told McGahn to write a letter disputing he had been ordered to fire Mueller, Donaldson said she was “generally aware such a conversation took place.”
“I do not, today, have an independent recollection of whether or not I was present for any such conversation or subsequently learned of it, nor do I have an independent recollection of the precise contents of the conversation,” she added.
Donaldson also affirmed that the White House counsel’s office received a phone call from Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which she understood him to be disclosing the targets of the panel’s investigation of Russian interference.
Asked where the “briefing” from Burr took place, Donaldson replied, “To the extent this question refers to contact between Senator Burr and the Office of the White House Counsel on or about March 16, 2017 (I would not characterize this contact as a formal ‘briefing’), that conversation took place by telephone.”
Donaldson was initially served with a subpoena for documents and public testimony; the White House instructed her, and other witnesses contacted by the Judiciary Committee, to not provide documents. The White House has asserted that former officials have “absolute immunity” from testifying to Congress — a claim that Democrats have said is legally dubious.
But according to the transcript of Donaldson’s responses, the White House invoked “confidentiality interests” rather than its previous claims of “absolute immunity,” which Democrats have vowed to defeat in court.
Judiciary Committee Democrats called the new “confidentiality” claim a “trick” meant to frustrate congressional oversight.
The White House’s move to block Donaldson from answering questions about her tenure is the latest setback for House Democrats seeking to publicly air Mueller’s damaging findings about Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election — and his campaign’s repeated contacts with Russians.
Donaldson provided some of Mueller’s most compelling evidence: voluminous contemporaneous notes describing an atmosphere of chaos in the West Wing as Trump careened between damaging revelations in the Russia probe.
“Just in the middle of another Russia Fiasco,” McGahn told Donaldson, according to a note she took on March 2, 2017, as Trump pressured then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to assume control of the investigation he had recused from.
After FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of the Trump-Russia probe, she wrote: “POTUS in panic/chaos … Need binders to put in front of POTUS. All things related to Russia.”
Her notes also stated that the sentiment took a darker, almost fatalistic turn after Trump fired Comey — days before Mueller was appointed to assume control of the Russia probe.
“Is this the beginning of the end?” Donaldson wrote on May 9, 2017, which Mueller indicated she said “because she was worried that the decision to terminate Comey and the manner in which it was carried out would be the end of the presidency.”