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Man-Up, Don McGahn

Vivia Chen

May 24, 2017


Dear Mr. McGahn:

I know you are a busy, hot-shot lawyer, but may I offer you some friendly advice from my little Careerist perch at The American Lawyer? Here it is: Please quit.

I urge you to leave your post as White House counsel not for the sake of the presidency or the nation, but for a more elemental reason: Your career. Unless you bail out fast, you run the distinct risk of flushing your career down the toilet.


Well, I hate to hurt your feelings, but you are doing a really, really crummy job. Unbelievably bad. Tremendously awful. Let's be blunt: You are neither serving the country nor Donald Trump. Nor yourself.

At first, not that many people seem to have caught on about your role in the various disasters of this administration. You were so visibly invisible that I was prompted to ask in February, "Yo, Where's Don McGahn?" Gradually, however, people are noticing your paw prints. (By the way, did see Sally Yates' recent interview with Anderson Cooper in which she mentioned you numerous times? Your name is getting out there!) 

I won't list all the mishaps under your watch—who has time for that?—but here are some that pop to mind:

The Michael Flynn fiasco: You got warnings—big red alerts—that this cowboy had no business being national security advisor, but it doesn't seem you did that much to stop him.

Weeks before the inauguration, Flynn's lawyers told the transition team (yup, you were the head lawyer of that team too) that he was under federal investigation for working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey. Then, after the election, acting attorney general Sally Yates met with you twice, sounding alarms that Flynn had lied about his chats with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. According to Yates, you asked her why the Justice Department should care if a government official lied to another. (Query: Were you asking her that question sarcastically or in earnest?)

White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said that you conducted an "exhaustive and extensive questioning of Flynn," and concluded that Flynn had not violated the law. How amazing.

Trump's firing of FBI chief James Comey: By many accounts, you played a big role in the firing. Putting aside whether Trump acted properly in axing Comey while his administration was under investigation by the FBI, why on earth did you allow Trump to write in his letter to Comey:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

If there was any doubt that Trump firing of Comey was connected with the Russian investigation, that sentence wiped it out. Way to go, counselor!

Conflicts with the Trump empire. A vital part of your job is to guard against ethics violations, but you seem utterly bored with this task now. (Fun fact: you were an ethics expert when you were a partner at Jones Day and Patton Boggs. Who knew?)

Recently, Donald Trump Jr. gave the commencement address (for an undisclosed fee) at American University in Dubai, just days before his father's trip to the Gulf. Did it occur to you that the leaders of Dubai might be trying to gain favors with the Trump administration or that the Trump company is selling condos in the region?

And let's not forget these other little conflicts: Kellyanne Conway promotion of Ivanka Trump's products on national TV with the White House logo behind her, Trump's public condemnation of Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's fashion line and Jared Kushner's sister's use of her family's connection to the Trump presidency to sell condos in China. (Query: Did no one offer Ethics 101 to staff and family members?)

I'm exhausted already, though there are so many more ethical/legal lapses under your watch. I'm not even going into the way the travel ban was handled or how the White House recently told the head of the Office of Government Ethics to bug off about former lobbyist working in the administration. (For a more granular accounting, see Steven Harper's Belly of the Beast.)

Look, I'm not without sympathy for your plight. I know Trump must be a handful. Advising him must be akin to running after an unruly toddler who's constantly spitting and biting. You've probably warned him not to tweet so much. Maybe you've counseled him to count to three before he shoots off his mouth. Or you've told him not to brag about state secrets to strangers from Russia.

I'd like to give you the benefit of a doubt that you're doing the right thing. Truth is, though, who knows what advice you're giving?

And that's a problem. Because you are either incredibly ineffectual or you are a sycophantic enabler. Either way, I don't think it enhances your professional reputation.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into your lack of visibility, but you seem a bit sheepish about your job. You've given no interviews, and you seem extraordinarily inaccessible—and unaccountable. (Are you in a bunker?) It's all curious, because before you joined team Trump, you had a flamboyant profile—rocking with power brokers, playing your guitar late into the night. You were kind of an alpha-male!

So man-up: Show your face and own up to what you've done.

Or, if you won't do that: Quit. Believe me, going back to Jones Day has to be better than where you are now.


Vivia Chen, The Careerist


 [email protected]





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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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