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So Sorry Don McGahn!

Vivia Chen

October 24, 2019


This has been bothering me for weeks now, so let me just put it out there: I'd like to tell Don McGahn that I've been way too mean to him. During his time in the Trump administration, I must have written at least a half-dozen posts about what a horrible, terrible job he was doing as White House Counsel. At one time, I even penned a letter to him, pleading with him to quit.

I zeroed in on McGahn because I thought he was the enabler-in-chief who failed—or didn't try—to prevent the shenanigans that Trump and his clan got into.

Among other things, I noted that McGahn willfully ignored warnings about Michael Flynn’s lies, played a key role in James Comey's firing and pressured then-AG Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russian investigations. Plus, there were countless ethical lapses under his watch, like allowing Donald Trump Jr. to deliver a paid commencement speech at a university in Dubai and not giving staffers the riot act about unacceptable behavior. (Remember when Kellyanne Conway exhorted viewers to buy Ivanka's fashion products on national TV with the White House logo behind her?)

Oh, how silly and foolish I was!

Compared with what's going on now, it seems ridiculous I got so agitated about such small fries. And in contrast to current White House counsel Pat Cipollone (fun fact: "cipollone" means big onion in Italian), McGahn behaved as a gentleman and scholar, a true patriot and the model of probity.

Seriously, what's the big deal about peddling a bunch of Ivanka dresses compared with Trump's audacious attempt to kidnap the next G7 Summit to his Doral resort in Florida? Was Cipollone oblivious to the appearance of impropriety and self-enrichment of holding a world summit at the president's property? Or did Trump fail to heed his warnings? Anyway you look at it, Cipollone did not come off well.

And what about that embarrassing letter that Trump wrote to President Erdogan in which the leader of the free world asked the Turkish leader to please play nice and not slaughter (too many) Kurds now that we're abandoning Syria? Did Cipollone review the letter? Or did he simply fail to impress on Trump that missives of such import should be vetted by others? Again, he's not doing his job.

But when he does get the chance to make his mark, I'm not sure his advice is at all sound. Apparently it was Cipollone's grand idea to release that conversation between Ukraine's president and Trump in which it appeared there was indeed a quid-pro-quo between Ukraine's willingness to investigate Hunter Biden for political reasons and the release of earmarked funds to Ukraine. Did Cipollone not see what the rest of us did?

Of course, what's eye-popping is Cipollone own 8-page letter to Democrats in which he laid out reasons why Team Trump would not be cooperating in the impeachment inquiry. Let me give you my quick review: It was a repetitious, rambling mess of defiance, self-righteousness and self-pity. ("Never before in our history has the House of Representatives . . taken the American people down the dangerous path you seem determined to pursue," he wrote.)

Cipollone ended the letter exhorting Trump's reelection agenda: "He has important work that he must continue ... including continuing strong economic growth, extending historically low levels of unemployment, negotiating trade deals, fixing our broken immigration system, lowering prescription drug prices, and addressing mass shooting violence."

What is the White House Counsel doing delivering this drivel?

In essence, it was a fuck-you valentine to Congress and the whole impeachment process. Fine, I get it, but why did it take Cipollone eight pages to convey that simple message? (Guess it's a good thing taxpayers aren't paying him by the hour.)

Not many people were impressed except Rudolph Giuliani who said: “From a lawyer’s point of view, the letter is close to brilliant.” That's quite a compliment coming from the man who cratered his own career so brilliantly.

You have to wonder about the quality of lawyering in the Trump administration these days. Perhaps Cipollone is a fine lawyer (after all, he was a Kirkland & Ellis partner at one point, though it's not clear if he reached equity status, or why he left the firm). But it's hard to tell now, because his first priority seems to be sucking up to his client. In fact, he seems to have channeled Trump so effectively that he's lost his basic lawyer reasoning skills. And what that will do for his career (he's only 53) is anyone's guess.

Which brings us back to McGahn who had the good sense to get out and go back to his Jones Day perch without looking like a total tool. He stands out among the philistines of Trump's world (don't get me started about Mick Mulvaney!) because he did something extraordinary: He said no to Trump at critical points, according to the Mueller report. Remember, he refused to give in to Trump's pressure to deny the 2018 New York Times story  that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller.

Having the nerve to stick to the truth shouldn't be our standard for courage. But that's where we are at this point.


Contact Vivia Chen at [email protected].

On Twitter: @lawcareerist.



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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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