In recent months, President Donald Trump rarely spoke with Don McGahn. It’s not clear he even likes his top White House lawyer and campaign consigliere, who left his West Wing job Wednesday after 20 months fraught with plenty of tension and chaos, as well as some big wins for the conservative movement.
But when it came time to award credit for winning the epic Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, Trump made sure McGahn got his due.
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On the Monday night after the close Senate vote, Trump huddled with top aides in his residence to review the draft of a prime-time speech he planned to give to show off his latest Supreme Court justice. McGahn’s name was not mentioned in the version before him, so Trump suggested aides add it, according to one White House official — alongside praise for Republican senators, other justices and Maureen Scalia, Justice Antonin Scalia’s widow, who planned to attend that night.
The president dictated the spot for the McGahn shout-out and then delivered the speech roughly one hour later from the East Room, calling the appointment of a justice “the most important decision a president can make.” McGahn was the lone White House staffer mentioned.
“I thank counsel to the President Don McGahn, who was a warrior for fairness and performed his critical duties in the finest traditions of our Constitution,” Trump said, misstating McGahn’s title — the White House counsel traditionally serves the presidency, not the president — in a telling re-interpretation of his role.
Minutes later, the audience gave Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a standing ovation and Kavanaugh took a ceremonial oath — he’d been officially sworn in two days earlier — to serve his country.
To Republican insiders, Trump’s name-drop was further proof that McGahn’s invaluable help in pushing through two justices to the highest court in under two years did not go unnoticed by the president — even if the two men rarely speak directly to each other.
“A lawyer’s job is not to be popular with the client, and there is no question that there has been tension at times. But nothing I have ever witnessed is unresolvable,” said former Gov. Chris Christie, who considers both McGahn and the president friends. “The president is a results-oriented guy, and in the end, that is the way he will remember Don’s service: ‘This guy got a lot done for me.’ The president will look back on that fondly because he has a lot of people around him who have not gotten things done.”
Kavanaugh’s ascension allows McGahn to leave the White House on relatively good terms after working as lead attorney for both the Trump campaign and the White House — and after being on the receiving end of Trump’s angry outbursts since at least March 2017.
But while McGahn accomplished big things in a few key areas, he also may have left the president exposed to an enormous level of political and legal risk over the next two years, say his critics. In the White House, McGahn worked to confirm close to 70 judges throughout the federal court system. He installed deeply conservative lawyers in federal agencies, giving them the mandate to dismantle Democratic-era regulations as fast as possible. But he also left the handling of ethics to his one of top deputies, Stefan Passantino — a portfolio sure to be probed if the Democrats take back the House in November and start firing off subpoenas. Democrats are deeply critical of Trump and his children’s failure to fully disentangle themselves from their business interests, including the Trump International Hotel, which has minted money over the past two years hosting supporters, political groups and foreign dignitaries.
McGahn also successfully steered the counsel’s office away from the intricacies of the special investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia, a move allies acknowledge could hang over his tenure, depending on the probe’s outcome. Several Republicans close to the White House say neither the president nor his in-house lawyers are prepared to deal with the eventual fallout of Robert Mueller’s investigation because of McGahn’s hands-off approach.
“We just don’t know yet. It is too soon to tell,” said C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to former President George H.W. Bush, when asked how Robert Mueller’s work could affect McGahn’s legacy in the White House.
But more than anything, McGahn changed the approach of the White House counsel’s office, which functions as an internal law firm and risk-assessment shop inside the West Wing and Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Under his leadership, he focused intently on just a few areas where he thought he could make a difference—such as judges and regulation—and he tended not to wade into many other policy areas, as past White House counsels have.
Critics, such as the Obama administration’s former ethics attorney, Norm Eisen, say McGahn helped to put a president in the White House who made attacking the rule of law a centerpiece of his presidency—just as McGahn had attacked the campaign finance system during his tenure at the Federal Election Commission.
“He’ll also be remembered for keeping himself out of jail,” Eisen said of McGahn. “That is no small feat because he was right in the center of it all. McGahn seems to have engineered things to keep him out of personal liability.” (There is no indication that McGahn broke the law at any point, though he reportedly spent hours in interviews with Mueller’s team.)
McGahn’s Republican critics, meanwhile, charge that while he did a few things well, he never embraced the breadth of the job.
“Don is a very untraditional White House counsel, and untraditional is not bad. It’s just different,” said one former Trump administration official. “He prioritized what he did, and he was rarely a big force in policy debates, even when there was a clear legal component. He stayed out of that fray and focused on judicial nominations. He also never developed a close relationship with Trump—enough to act as a senior political or policy adviser.”
True to form, McGahn left the White House on Wednesday after a respectful, if not necessarily warm, goodbye meeting with Trump.
He leaves behind a complex inheritance: Just as Trump forever changed the office of the presidency, McGahn has altered the role of the White House counsel so substantially so that it could end up setting a precedent for whoever occupies the office next.
As his successor, Trump has chosen Pat Cipollone, a commercial lawyer in Washington, D.C., though Cipollone is still undergoing his background check, a process that can take weeks and will leave the White House counsel’s office without a leader heading into the midterms.
The president feels Cipollone, an experienced litigator and former Justice Department official, will serve him well as the White House faces greater oversight, said two people familiar with the president’s deliberations. The two also have much better personal chemistry. Trump and Cipollone already know each other, since Cipollone has been advising the president informally since the campaign and even helped out with 2016 debate preparations.
If Trump is ambivalent about McGahn, who pushed back on the president’s rants against the attorney general and his musings on firing Mueller, Republicans more broadly are thrilled with what he has accomplished. McGahn used the post to further long-held goals of the conservative movement, from placing like-minded allies across the federal judiciary to installing top conservatives in plum executive branch offices.
“Trump and Don both saw each other as instrumental to one another’s success, even if they never had a personal connection,” explained one Republican close to the White House. “Trump saw value in Don because he was the connective tissue to the Republican establishment, like the congressional leadership and The Federalist Society. Don’s view of Trump was that he was not ideological. He did not have fixed ideas on things that mattered to Don, except in a broad sense, and Don saw an opportunity in that.”
McGahn was no novice in the Trumpworld by the time the president-elect appointed him incoming White House counsel the day after Thanksgiving 2016. As the campaign’s top lawyer and the most prominent establishment Republican to sign onto the Trump candidacy, McGahn was already familiar with Trump’s mannerisms and his set ways of doing things. The two also had personal history, since McGahn’s uncle once represented Trump in the 1980s in Atlantic City before that relationship soured.
During the presidential transition, McGahn met with almost all of the living former White House counsels to seek their advice about the best way to approach the job. (Those meetings did not include John Dean, the former White House counsel under Richard Nixon, said one former White House official. Dean did not respond to a request for comment.)
McGahn hired a team of well-qualified lawyers from big law firms and former Supreme Court clerkships, and set his sights on filling roughly 135 vacant judgeships. He also became consumed with filling the Supreme Court seat made vacant in 2016 by the death of Antonin Scalia, and eventually leading to the confirmation of right-leaning federal judge Neil Gorsuch.
McGahn saw these judicial appointments as more important than Republican control of the Senate and the House, according to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“I can’t think of any other White House counsel’s legacy being felt 10, 30, 40 years from now,” Bannon told POLITICO. “That is one of the reasons the left is so triggered by Trump. They are rational and they understand, more than some conservatives, that Trump will be in their lives through these judges for the next 30 to 40 years.”
But the White House counsel’s job has never revolved solely around judicial nominations, and
soon after the inauguration, the incoming crises started for McGahn.
On January 27, just seven days after the inauguration, the administration issued a legally dubious executive order—hastily written by Bannon and hard-line senior policy adviser Stephen Miller—that barred refugees and citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
They wrote it without the input of White House attorneys, according to several former White House officials. Then, they left the clean-up effort to McGahn and his team as several courts blocked the order and protests erupted around the country. (Eventually the Supreme Court upheld one version of the ban, bolstering McGahn’s feeling that appointing conservative judges was a key to carrying out Trump policies.)
Soon thereafter, the White House was forced to push out its new national security adviser Michael Flynn after it became public that he lied to the FBI about his contact with the Russian government during the Trump transition. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates first alerted McGahn to the possibility that Flynn could be compromised; the White House then waited 18 days before firing him. One Republican close to the White House argued at the time that internally investigating Flynn and pushing him out in two weeks was actually a fast timeline—and that McGahn found the situation uncomfortable and delicate.
By early March 2017, Trump was furious that his attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign—and he took it out on McGahn and other top aides during a heated Oval Office meeting. On a Friday afternoon before departing for Mar-a-Lago, Trump called out McGahn in front of other aides to let him know how unhappy he was. In Trump’s view, lawyers are meant to clean up any and all of a client’s messes, said one Republican close to the White House, and Trump did not appreciate McGahn’s pushback or attempt to create boundaries even if it is unclear what the White House counsel could have done to ease the tension around Sessions’ recusal.
By May 2017, Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey—a move from which McGahn did not dissuade Trump and which led to the appointment of Robert Mueller to run the Russia investigation. That’s when his rapport with the president, never warm, really started to deteriorate.
“Their relationship got a lot more difficult once it began clear Don would not help out with the Mueller investigation because he was a witness. Trump felt very angry and wronged by the investigation and thought Don should be handling it as the White House counsel,” said one Republican close to the White House.
The Russia investigation was messy, with few political upsides and plenty of reputational risk, so McGahn retreated into a portfolio over which he felt he had a measure of control: judges and deregulation. He held weekly meetings with his team of lawyers working on judicial nominations and devoted significant time to meeting and talking with senators about various nominees, said one former White House official who estimated McGahn spent upward of 60 percent of his time on judges.
As for the Mueller probe, McGahn left the handling of that hot potato to other hired attorneys, including Ty Cobb and John Dowd, both of whom later quit.
McGahn also worked to install in key points like-minded conservatives who would carry out the rollback of regulations, including Alexander Acosta at the Labor Department and Neomi Rao as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Now some of his subordinates from the White House counsel’s office have fanned out across the agencies to become top lawyers at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Justice, among others.
Bannon told POLITICO that McGahn was like a “mechanic who knew how to get under the hood” of the government and understood better than most Trump officials how to manipulate the bureaucracy by seeding it with allies. “He is probably one of the two or three smartest people on the deconstruction of the administrative state. He is taking apart the federal Levianthan brick by brick,” Bannon said.
Happier in this world than Trump’s, McGahn rarely made an effort to insert himself into the drafting of executive orders, or heated policy debates over immigration or trade — though he did urge the president to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, said another former White House official, and his team provided legal counsel on a wide variety of issues including the airstrikes in Syria.
“He was rarely in small group meetings in the Oval Office, and otherwise spent very little time with the president,” said one former administration official. “Although he worked in the actual White House—and not one of the other adjacent buildings—he was not someone who saw the president every day.”
Usually, McGahn skipped Cabinet sessions or large staff meetings in the Roosevelt Room, said White House officials. More often than not, he passed his days sequestered in his dark wood-paneled office on the second floor of the West Wing, a corridor shared with other top advisers such as Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Johnny DeStefano and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.
McGahn trusted few colleagues apart from his deputy counsel Annie Donaldson, whose office was on the same floor; Conway, who also hailed from New Jersey; and chief of staff John Kelly, who often took McGahn’s side as he feuded with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the two White House staffers with whom McGahn most often clashed. (McGahn allies say he battled with them over ideological differences and viewed them as too liberal for a Republican administration.)
And McGahn’s relationship with Trump never recovered. As it got worse, Kelly became the intermediary between the two.
Behind the president’s back, McGahn took to calling Trump “King Kong”—a nod to what he saw as Trump’s anger management problem and his emotional decision-making. With his deadpan sense of humor, McGahn would casually refer to the president as the overgrown gorilla in the course of conversations: “This is where King Kong is at on this now,” or “I think King Kong has calmed down a bit,” to describe the mood of the leader of the free world, according to former administration officials and two Republicans close to the White House. (McGahn declined to comment through a White House spokesperson.)
McGahn would tell other White House officials that it was a good day, or week in the White House, if he never had to go see the president in person.
Trump felt equally disappointed by the White House attorney, whom he expected to tackle any and all problems in the vein of his former New York City lawyer and fixer, the late Roy Cohn. He frequently complained about McGahn, said one former administration official. He would say McGahn is not tough enough to be his lawyer and constantly bemoaned the fact that McGahn had let Sessions recuse himself, even though the White House counsel had no sway over that decision.
“He was not a good fit for that job, but he also had a very difficult client and a difficult role,” said a former administration official. “McGahn did not know what was going on a lot of the time.”
Still, as top White House staffers departed the administration in record numbers — either through resignations or firing by tweet — McGahn hung on. He stayed in that office and plugged away on the judges, eventually helping to confirm two Supreme Court justices and 26 circuit court and 41 district court judges.
More than anything, though, McGahn became a de facto survivor in the Trump orbit and did it mostly it on his own terms to further an agenda he believed in. The only people who have lasted that long from the campaign are Jared and Ivanka, and senior adviser Stephen Miller.
“Don lasted longer within the Trump world than even Hope Hicks,” one former White House official noted.
In the end, though, not even McGahn could escape the fired-by-tweet fate.
For weeks, rumors had circulated throughout the White House, Capitol Hill and in the news media that McGahn intended to leave his post after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. (This was before the allegations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh surfaced and the confirmation fight morphed into a partisan brawl.)
Trump got tired of the Washington guessing game about when his top attorney would leave, said several Republicans close to the White House, so he made the decision for McGahn. One day in late August, right before Labor Day, Trump abruptly announced via Twitter that McGahn would leave the White House in the fall. He wrote it without first discussing it with McGahn.
“White House Counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his position in the fall, shortly after the confirmation (hopefully) of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service,” read the tweet, sent at 10:30 a.m.
The missive took McGahn by surprise, but he quickly shook it off, allies said. It was just King Kong asserting himself.
McGahn is leaving the White House counsel’s office in a fairly skeletal state after the departure of his top aides — to federal agencies, private practice, or judgeships. Cipollone will have to spend a lot of his time rebuilding the staff just before the midterm elections—when Democrats are likely to retake the House and suddenly gain vast and intrusive oversight powers.
“He is leaving the White House counsel’s office in a dangerous position,” said one former White House official. “They only have roughly 20 dedicated White House lawyers and a bunch of detailees who could leave at any time. I don’t think anyone who is paying attention thinks they are prepared for a Democratic takeover.”
McGahn has not shared his plans for life after the White House.
Several of his allies say he intends to take a lot of meetings with law firms, power brokers and businesses — after he takes some time off. “Don will now be a recognized expert in crisis management,” said Christie. “Any CEO in the country would benefit from having this version of Don McGahn advising him or her. He certainly has dealt with a number of crises — and although we never discussed it, it is an area of potential practice.”
Unlike other former White House staffers, McGahn spent much of his time in the White House cultivating close ties with congressional leaders such as McConnell and senators like Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, with whom he talked several times a week during the Kavanaugh confirmation. Those relationships could pay off as he searches for his next job.
Several Republicans close to the White House predict McGahn will end up at his old law firm, Jones Day, which represented the Trump campaign and has earned millions from that work. It would be a familiar place for McGahn to land alongside his longtime mentor and fellow GOP election lawyer, Ben Ginsberg. Former President Barack Obama’s top attorney Bob Bauer followed the same path, working as White House counsel and then leaving for a private law firm where he continued to represent Obama and top Democrats.
But representing the Trump reelection campaign would not mean Trump and McGahn would have to interact directly—they could continue working together without much personal contact.
“Don doesn’t dislike Trump. They just are not very comfortable with each other, but they also see one another as being useful,” said one Republican close to the administration. “Trump wants to be reelected. Don wants Trump to be reelected. Don will be a useful person for him.”