If there is a uniting theme to President Trump's first 100 days in office, it is this: Our president has no use for the norms, expectations, and traditions of the office. He refuses to divest from his businesses. He flings unfounded accusations of spying at his predecessor on Twitter. He says one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, shrugging off the difference. It's no exaggeration to say that Trump has behaved unlike any other president before him.
The unenviable job of mopping up after Trump's messes falls to a fellow named Donald McGahn, the top lawyer in the White House. But as my new profile of McGahn for Mother Jones suggests, Trump's counsel may be more inclined to find new and creative ways to let Trump do what he pleases than to keep the commander-in-chief honest.
Clean Up on Aisle Trump
White House counsel Don McGahn has the hardest job in Washington: keeping the president on the right side of the law.
Mother Jones | May/June 2017
IN EARLY MARCH, a procession of lawyers in boxy suits and overcoats crowded into a chandeliered dining room at Tony Cheng's in Washington, DC's Chinatown. Justice Department attorneys passed heaping plates of beef with broccoli and spring rolls to corporate law firm partners and think tank fellows in bow ties. A sign taped to the restaurant's entrance announced the event was sold out, and regulars of the Federalist Society's monthly luncheon marveled at the turnout. The featured guest was Donald F. McGahn II, who had recently ascended to one of Washington's most influential legal perches, White House counsel.
After the fortune cookies were distributed, C. Boyden Gray, a former White House counsel to George H.W. Bush and a Federalist Society board member, approached the microphone. McGahn was stuck at the White House dealing with a "pressing matter," he informed the disappointed audience. Gray didn't elaborate. He didn't need to: The night before, the Washington Post had revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had told the Senate that he had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, had in fact met twice with Russia's ambassador.
Hours after the Federalist Society luncheon let out, Sessions recused himself from ongoing investigations into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. President Donald Trump spent the next day fuming at his staff—particularly McGahn, who had to explain to the incensed commander in chief that Sessions' recusal was the AG's decision alone. Early the next morning, Trump rattled off a series of tweets accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. McGahn was soon on a plane to Mar-a-Lago; his surreal task was to figure out how the administration might retroactively prove an explosive allegation that Trump had tossed out without evidence.
As the top legal adviser to the president, the White House counsel is one of the most vital positions in any administration. The counsel vets executive orders and nominees, reviews the legal aspects of national security matters, and monitors compliance with federal ethics laws. Rarely does an order or a memo leave the White House without the counsel's sign-off. Gray says that during his time as counsel, his office received four times more paperwork than any other White House department. (This was before email.) A former Obama White House counsel told me, "People used to say to me, 'You and the chief of staff are the only two people who really touch everything.'"
Above all, the White House counsel's role is to keep the president out of trouble, legal or otherwise. With Trump, that's a Herculean task. McGahn has represented scandal-plagued Republicans—Tom DeLay was a client—but the controversy and chaos engulfing the Trump White House are another order of magnitude. McGahn represents the most conflict-ridden commander in chief in the nation's history. He has spent his short time in the White House constantly rushing to put out fires.