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The Very Talented Don McGahn

Vivia Chen

January 31, 2018



I hate to admit mistakes, but I was so wrong about Don McGahn.

Remember when I wrote him that nice letter, urging him to quit his job as the White House counsel last spring? I did so because I thought that he was doing an awful, awful job counseling the president and serving the office of the presidency. I also told him that he was heedlessly flushing his career down the toilet in the process.

Boy, was I wrong! No, I’m not talking about my criticism of McGahn’s performance as White House counsel. I’m talking about the part in which I suggested that McGahn wasn’t protective enough of his career.

It turns out this guy is a brilliant careerist! Sure, the nation and the presidency might go to hell, but McGahn is going to come out of the quagmire smelling like a rose.

I mean, did you catch the recent coverage about his reported role in stopping President Donald Trump from firing special prosecutor Bob Mueller? Recently, The New York Times broke the story that last summer McGahn objected so vehemently to Trump’s plan to ax Mueller that he threatened to bolt. As a result, McGahn scored some rather positive headlines, such as: “Trump Wanted to Fire Mueller. The Top White House Lawyer Said No.” Overnight, it seems, McGahn has emerged as the brave knight who stood up to Trump—the voice of conscience in a sea of sycophants.

Oh, please.

I’ll grant that McGahn did the right thing, but does anyone believe that he acted out of a deep allegiance to the rule of law?

There’s certainly little in his tenure to suggest such a conviction. Remember, McGahn has been a consistent henchman for Trump from day one: McGahn ignored warnings about Michael Flynn’s lies about his foreign contacts, including one by acting Attorney General Sally Yates; played a central role in Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey; and pressured Jeff Session not to recuse himself from the Russian investigations. I won’t even go into McGahn’s role in facilitating/ignoring countless questionable ethical lapses during this administration.

So how is it that McGahn has been rechristened his own man—particularly when his act of defiance took place back in June?

People are skeptical about the timing of the revelation. Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, tweeted:

Before you canonize McGahn remember he pressured Sessions not to recuse. I bet his objection was not that firing Mueller was wrong but that it was dangerous. Also, this is not the 1st leak to paint McGahn in a good light at Trump's expense. If I were Trump I'd wonder about McGahn
I’m of the school that McGahn is behind the leak. My bet is that he is setting the stage to return to Big Law. (Remember, McGahn made close to $2.5 million at Jones Day.) Not only does he want to disinfect himself from this administration’s taints, he wants to distinguish himself from the pack, capitalize on his experience as a friend of big business and emerge as the savior of the day.

I think McGahn has been cool and calculating all along. His fingerprints are all over the Trump administration (in addition to the list above, he’s been very instrumental in filling the judiciary with super conservative judges), but he does it with a deft, invisible hand.

He stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s other key lawyers, who often seem rude, boastful and clumsy. Never did he make a fool of himself like Marc Kasowitz, (who sent a stranger, who urged him to quit, threatening emails, laced with obscenities: “You are fucking with me now Let’s see who you are Watch your back , bitch”). Nor was he brazenly careless like Ty Cobb, (whose rantings about the inner workings of the White House—”I think he’s like a McGahn spy”—were overheard by a reporter at a Washington, D.C., steak house).

And I certainly can’t imagine that McGahn would stoop to do the kind of errands that Michael Cohen did, like dispatching $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels so that she wouldn’t spill the beans about her alleged affair with Trump. (I know, Cohen is Trump’s personal lawyer while McGahn is a government lawyer. But does anyone believe that Trump has any problems crossing those lines?)

Which is to say that while McGahn might be a Trump tool, he’s selective about how’s he’s used. Clever fellow.




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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: VChen@alm.com

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