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 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.
Donaldson was among a handful of central witnesses in Mueller’s investigation who provided evidence that Trump may have obstructed justice. The White House has 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 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.
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.”