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Is Don McGahn the Post-Mueller Hero?

Vivia Chen

April 22, 2019

Gettyimages-631330798_sq-4495acac97c443a016f384c7d3d809112c48d298-s800-c85Guess who’s emerged as the shiny, white knight of the Mueller report: former White House Counsel Don McGahn.

Yes, my man McGahn, the guy I’ve been excoriating the past few years (click herehere).

Since the report came out, McGahn has been bathing in positive coverage: “Don McGahn May Have Single-handedly Saved Donald Trump’s Presidency,” blares CNN. And President Obama’s White House counsel Bob Bauer writes in the New York Times that “ we should be grateful for his resistance to presidential wrongdoing.”

So what did McGahn do that’s so amazing? Stop Trump from nuking Mexico? Thwart the president’s plan to gift Alaska to Russia?

No. McGahn simply refused Trump’s request to lie.

For those of you who haven’t slogged through the Mueller tome, here’s what the relevant section of the report says: In early 2018, after the New York Times reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump pressured McGahn to deny the story.

At first, Trump deployed his minions to twist McGahn’s arm. He asked his “personal counsel” (mysteriously unnamed in the report) to tell McGahn’s lawyer that McGahn issue “a statement denying that he had been asked to fire the Special Counsel and that he had threatened to quit in protest.” Next, Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to use her persuasive powers on McGahn. Then, Trump got White House aide Rob Porter to order McGahn to “write a letter to the file ‘for our records’ ” to deny the news report.

In each situation, McGahn hung tough and refused to comply.

The climax, of course, was when Trump finally asked McGahn at a meeting ”whether he would ‘do a correction,’ and McGahn said no.”

But the fun part of that interaction was when Trump pressed McGahn: “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” To which McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he’s a “real lawyer.” Then Trump replied, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”

I must say that when I read that exchange, I felt like saying, “You go Don McGahn! Tell him what real lawyers are made of. Let’s hear it for the hardworking lawyers out there defending truth and the American Way with their trusty notepads!”

Ok, I’m getting carried away.

Back to the real issue: Did McGahn do something truly courageous? Or were Trump’s requests so outrageous that no reasonable person, particularly one legally trained, could comply? McGahn certainly had nothing to gain by revising the truth—actually, his image improved once it came out he stood up to Trump—so why would he doing something idiotic?

Which brings us to the people who do the president’s bidding, the ones who seem so willing to suspend disbelief or self-respect to satisfy the president’s whims. Whether they’re doing it out of fear, careerism or uncontrollable urge to bow to power is anyone’s guess.

For his part, all McGahn did was stick to the truth—which, really, shouldn’t be such an awesome thing. But the standards are different these days. So compared to others spinning in the Trump’s orbit, McGahn looks damn heroic.



Twitter: @lawcareerist.


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Calling McGahn heroic for not lying is sort of like the praise one gives a toddler for confessing he knocked over Mommy’s favorite lamp. Way to go, Vivia! You didn’t steal a paper from the blind newsstand operator on your way into the office.

The truth is always the hardest thing to do. And for the most part, humans are sheep, ostriches or lemmings who follow the leader. Truth takes leadership, which that troika generally fails to have. Truth has gotten people quite literally killed. Unfortunately, they don't teach leadership and truth in schools.

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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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