White House counsel Don McGahn has been a Trump loyalist since the early days of Trump’s presidential campaign. That didn’t stop him from threatening to quit last summer when President Donald Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller.
That’s the central takeaway from an explosive New York Times report on Thursday night detailing how Trump directed McGahn to fire Mueller last June, an order McGahn refused to carry out. Instead, the White House lawyer threatened to resign his own post.
Seven months later, Mueller is escalating his investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election as well as allegations that Trump obstructed justice. Depending on how those investigations play out, McGahn could play an important role in Mueller’s probe.
It’s in some ways surprising to learn that McGahn would stand up to the president so strongly, especially on an issue as politically controversial as the Mueller probe.
McGahn, a prominent Washington attorney who specializes in campaign finance and election law, joined Trump early on during his campaign — providing it with some much-needed legitimacy. After his election victory, Trump gave McGahn the job as the White House counsel with the responsibility to vet potential nominees and ensure that federal employees follow ethics laws.
“Rarely does an order or a memo leave the White House without the counsel’s sign-off,” Mother Jones reported in a McGahn profile last summer. McGahn’s highest calling is to keep members of government — including the president — out of legal trouble.
That, in part, may have motivated McGahn’s bold action after Trump’s order. According to the Times, McGahn felt firing Mueller would prove disastrous to Trump’s presidency, and assumed Trump wouldn’t do so on his own if McGahn said no. That gamble proved correct: Trump eventually backed off.
And this isn’t the first time McGahn threatened to resign over Trump’s legally troublesome actions. The Wall Street Journal reported last September that McGahn almost quit the White House because Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner kept defying official protocols by meeting together. Both men are under investigation by Mueller, and McGahn reportedly feared that investigators might think Trump and Kushner coordinated their stories ahead of meetings with them.
Critics inside and outside of Washington have long derided McGahn as a Trump lackey. They may have to sharply revise that assessment after Thursday’s report that he helped save Mueller’s job.
How does McGahn fit into the Trump-Russia saga?
McGahn is the White House’s top lawyer, but a different lawyer deals with the White House’s response to the Trump-Russia investigation. That’s Ty Cobb: He joined the White House in July and now reviews internal documents related to the Russia investigation while responding to reporters.
And here’s why Cobb has that job and not McGahn: Last May, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she told McGahn former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI during the Russia investigation. That matters because it’s possible the White House’s top lawyer knew Flynn had committed a crime when Trump chose to fire FBI Director James Comey.
The veracity of Yates’s claim has since been challenged, but it was still bad news for McGahn. He may even soon find himself in interviews with Mueller’s team. As a result, McGahn recommended early last year that Trump hire another lawyer to take care of the White House’s response to the Russia probe — so enter Cobb.
Recall that the Times story notes that Trump asked McGahn to fire Mueller last June — just one month before Cobb assumed his new role. That meant dealing with Trump’s anger over Mueller fell to McGahn at the time. But now that Cobb is in charge, it seems that Trump is much more accepting of Mueller. “There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair,” Trump told the Times’s Michael Schmidt last December.
Still, it’s likely that McGahn is happier now that the job to mollify Trump regarding Russia matters now falls to Cobb.