The upcoming departure of White House counsel Don McGahn, which Trump announced without fanfare on Twitter, will deprive the West Wing of a rare official who has defied a President known to prefer pliant aides. In one instance, McGahn refused Trump’s order to instruct the Justice Department to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn threatened to quit.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has similarly flouted Trump’s demands to un-recuse himself from Russia-related matters. In recent days, Trump has dialed up his insults. Lawmakers who used to voice support for their former colleague now say it’s likely Sessions is gone by winter.
For a President consumed with loyalty, the departures signal a cull of those with whom he’s clashed. But it’s not clear whether their replacements will be any more willing to cede to Trump’s demands.
Emmet Flood, a Russia-focused White House lawyer now considered a likely replacement for McGahn, hasn’t indicated in public that he would be any more willing to help Trump short-circuit the Mueller probe than McGahn was. He has acted as an authoritative voice in the West Wing on the investigation, people familiar with the matter say, borne from his experience in President Bill Clinton’s White House.
And while Flood would be a valued player in the event Democrats move to impeach Trump, he lacks McGahn’s conservative credo and likely would not pursue Trump’s conservative deregulatory agenda with the same zeal that has earned McGahn plaudits on the right.
Asked by reporters Wednesday about McGahn’s departure, Trump called his lawyer a “good man, very good man.”
“A lot of affection for Don,” Trump said from the Roosevelt Room, adding that McGahn will “probably” be moving on to the private sector and “he’s done an excellent job.”
He downplayed the more than 30 hours McGahn spent speaking with investigators in the special counsel’s office, stressed the sit-downs only came after his approval.
“I knew he was going,” Trump said, despite reports that suggested the President’s legal team wasn’t fully aware of the contents of McGahn’s discussions. “We do everything by the book and Don is an excellent guy.”
Departure by tweet?
Trump’s tweet announcing McGahn’s departure highlighted the highly atypical relationships Trump maintains with several top officials in his administration.
McGahn was quietly planning his White House exit once Kavanaugh’s confirmation is secured, but he was caught off guard by Trump’s announcement on Twitter of his impending departure. Reading reports of McGahn’s plans to exit, it was as if Trump felt a need to spoil his top White House lawyer’s own resignation.
Sessions, meanwhile, has repeatedly found himself in the presidential crosshairs, with Trump frequently taking to his favorite social media platform to belittle and chastise one of the most prominent members of his Cabinet.
Before Sessions, it was the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson whom Trump undermined. Like McGahn, Tillerson’s exit — a firing in his case — was also announced by tweet.
While every one of Trump’s predecessors have had disagreements with members of their Cabinet and senior staff, Trump is the first President in modern history to make a habit of publicly undercutting and criticizing those officials.
Trump’s tweet on Wednesday was not the first sign of the President’s highly unusual relationship with his White House counsel, a position that demands frequent interaction with the President and oversight over the most sensitive matters that hit the President’s desk.
Trump and McGahn have carried out a tortured partnership for more than a year, people familiar with the dynamic say. According to officials, Trump has at times seemed unclear on McGahn’s role — which is not as his personal lawyer, but as a lawyer for the White House and the presidency.
While McGahn — one of the earliest members of Trump’s campaign staff — was once a trusted force in the President’s inner circle, their relationship never mended after McGahn failed to convince Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. And it only worsened after McGahn refused Trump’s directive to fire the special counsel.
In recent months, one-on-one interactions between the two men have all but evaporated, with the two men almost exclusively meeting during group meetings or when White House chief of staff John Kelly is in the room.