Trump answers questions from the press on August 17, 2018.
By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Last month, amid news that White House counsel Don McGahn would be stepping down, Donald Trump suggested that he had already selected a successor to serve as the West Wing’s in-house lawyer. “I am very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House Counsel!” the president wrote on Twitter. But much has changed in the two weeks since that announcement. Leaked excerpts from Bob Woodward’s Fear, which goes on sale Tuesday, hinted at rampant disloyalty within Trump’s inner circle. A New York Times op-ed by an anonymous senior administration official claiming to be part of an anti-Trump “resistance” confirmed what other highly placed sources have been telling journalists for more than a year: many of Trump’s closest advisers see their job as protecting the country from his worst instincts.
Trump’s heightened paranoia could amplify those instincts. As Axios reports, the president is now vacillating between several front-runners to replace McGahn, including current White House Counsel member Emmet Flood, Fannie Mae general counsel Brian Brooks, Washington litigator Pat Cipollone, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff Matt Whitaker. Flood, of course, was previously considered a shoo-in for McGahn’s job, given his high-level position on Trump’s legal team and his history as an alumnus of the Bill Clinton impeachment battle. But the political calculus surrounding Trump’s decision has undeniably changed. If Trump was prioritizing legal experience before, now he may be prioritizing loyalty. He wants somebody “who’ll be ‘his guy’ and defend him on TV,” according to a “source familiar with his thinking.”
That could become a major problem for Trump as Robert Mueller’s Russia probe grinds toward a conclusion. With the House likely to fall into Democratic hands after the midterm elections, Trump will need a steady hand to navigate a two-front war against the special counsel and Democrats in Congress. “What I can say with confidence is that if the Democrats take either or both houses of Congress in November, the new W.H. Counsel will have his or her hands full dealing with congressional subpoenas,” William Jeffress, a Washington defense lawyer who worked on the Valerie Plame leak case, told me. Flood’s résumé makes him uniquely qualified to steer the White House through such choppy waters. “If they lose [Flood], they are f–ked. Because they are never going to find a decent white-collar type to fill Emmet’s shoes,” a top Washington lawyer told Axios.
For Trump, however, there are now additional, personal factors to consider. He has, after all, routinely been burned by trusted advisers, including his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen, Apprentice-era ally Omarosa Manigault Newman, and former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. Many in Trumpworld fear that McGahn, too, might have fingered the president when he offered extensive cooperation with Mueller, sitting for more than 30 hours of interviews across several sessions with the special counsel. Given his justifiable fear of further betrayal, it is entirely possible that Trump will spurn Flood for a less notable, more dutiful attorney. With the White House Counsel’s office already understaffed, the decision could become one of the most fateful of Trump’s presidency.