President Donald Trump is about to welcome a new White House counsel.
“I’ve made a decision. He’s … you’ve been reading a little bit about it,” Trump told the AP. “A very fine man, highly respected by a lot of people: Pat.”
Cipollone will take over for Don McGahn, who served as White House counsel since 2017. McGahn’s job was to tackle and advise on any thorny legal issues facing the office of the presidency, though McGahn’s biggest contribution will likely be his aggressive push to get Trump’s judicial nominees confirmed.
McGahn’s departure had been expected for some time. Trump announced via tweet in August that McGahn would leave in the fall after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Cipollone quietly came up in early speculation over who might take McGahn’s place. The Washington attorney has close ties to Trump and his circle, and reportedly has the support of Trump’s personal attorneys, including Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow.
But Cipollone won’t be a personal attorney for Trump. As White House counsel, his job is to protect the office of the presidency, not the president himself.
Still, Trump prizes loyalty among his appointees, and McGahn did a few things that might have disappointed him, like cooperating with investigators from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Cipollone might not be handling the Russia investigation directly, but he will be very, very busy — especially if Democrats retake the House of Representatives in the November midterms and begin the onslaught of congressional investigations.
Cipollone may have signed up for the toughest job in Washington
Cipollone comes to the White House from Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner LLP, where, according to his firm bio, he’s currently a litigation partner. He’s deeply involved in Catholic causes, the Washington Post reported, and he served in the George H.W. Bush Justice Department under former Attorney General William Barr (who, incidentally, is reportedly a potential candidate to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions.)
“He’s a respected Washington litigator,” a source told Axios earlier this month. “He’s not one of the big names in the Washington Republican Bar, but he’s respected.”
His résumé might might have stood out for other reasons — including his early support of Trump. Cipollone helped with debate prep during the 2016 campaign, sources told CBS News, and he’s since stayed in touch with the president.
Cipollone is also friendly with Emmet Flood, Trump’s attorney in charge of handling special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. (Flood had also been considered for the White House counsel job, but will remain in his current role.) Cipollone has also given informal advice to Trump’s legal team on the Russia probe since at least June, according to the Washington Post.
What Don McGahn leaves behind
Cipollone will be Trump’s second White House counsel, replacing McGahn, whose tenure was at times tumultuous.
McGahn joined the White House at the start of the president’s term, in 2017, though he’d been an early — and somewhat surprising — supporter of candidate Trump.
But as McGahn readies his White House exit, there are signs the relationship between the president and his top aide has turned sour. Rumors had circulated since at least March that McGahn wanted out. Trump eventually obliged in August with a tweet that declared McGahn would depart in the fall, after Kavanaugh’s confirmation. McGahn was reportedly surprised by the tweet, effectively putting him on the list of White House personnel ousted through social media posts.
The Kavanaugh confirmation, of course, transformed into a bitter and drawn-out fight, but McGahn accomplished what he set out to do. To that end, McGahn helped Trump deliver on one of his biggest presidential accomplishments: getting a record number of conservative judicial picks confirmed, including two Supreme Court justices. McGahn’s efforts have ushered in a quiet, but very real, transformation within the federal courts.
But cementing Trump’s legacy might not have been enough for McGahn. The president reportedly grew dissatisfied with McGahn as he became embroiled in the White House drama around Mueller’s investigation into Trump-Russia ties.
McGahn was involved in at least four matters that Mueller is investigating, including Trump’s efforts to prevent Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe and Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller. (Trump said McGahn was “NOT” responsible for him not firing Mueller or Sessions.)
In August, a few weeks before Trump tweeted about McGahn’s departure, the New York Times reported that McGahn had completed three voluntary interviews with Mueller’s team. The interviews totaled more than 30 hours and covering topics including Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s reported attempts to fire Mueller himself. Exactly what McGahn told investigators isn’t known — not even by Trump’s lawyers.
Trump denied that the “Russia Witch Hunt” had anything do to with his decision about McGahn, but the timing was certainly notable. Now that McGahn has secured Kavanaugh’s spot on the Supreme Court bench, his White House tenure is nearing its end date. (Sources told CNN McGahn will likely stay on until the midterms; the White House did not return a request for comment on when Cipollone will start.)
Cipollone, when he does take over, will likely be tasked with keeping up McGahn’s clip at pushing Trump’s judicial agenda, though he doesn’t appear to have the deep connections in Republican politics that McGahn brought to the job.
He’ll also have to deal with the potential onslaught of investigations should the Democrats win the House of Representatives after the midterms. Even if Cipollone isn’t handling the Russia investigation, the probe is constantly looming over the White House. Cipollone, then, may be dealing with everything McGahn faced, and more.