Who is Don McGahn, the WH counsel at center of Flynn controversy? ‘An asshole,’ says colleague.
When former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates learned former nat sec adviser Michael Flynn had misrepresented conversations with a Russian ambassador to the administration, and as such could potentially be compromised, it was White House legal counsel Don McGahn whom Yates had reportedly warned. According to press secretary Sean Spicer, McGahn concluded that “there [was] not a legal issue” to the conversations, but weeks later, after the information went public, and it was clear to the entire country (if not McGahn) that Flynn had potentially broken the law, he was out.
Questions still surround the episode — why did it take two weeks to fire Flynn if it had been clear for so long that he had lied to the top brass? — and they were expected to be the focus of Yates’ Senate testimony Monday afternoon. But people familiar with McGahn, the former FEC lawyer who has found himself at the center of the administration’s biggest controversies, are likely unsurprised by any of it. McGahn’s approach to the law has always been, they say, less about conforming to it than bending it to suit his own purposes.
During the six years he served as an FEC commissioner, McGahn worked tirelessly to undermine the agency’s powers and curb its authority (shocking that he’s ended up serving in the Trump administration). He would openly disregard enforcing parts of the law he disagreed with, once telling a group of law students “I’m not enforcing the law as Congress passed it,” in reference to the McCain-Feingold Act on campaign finance. “I plead guilty as charged.”
It was McGahn who reportedly was behind one of President Trump’s most Nixonian comments about the Executive Branch’s observance of the law. When Trump told The New York Times last November that a sitting president “can’t have a conflict of interest,” a former colleague told Mother Jones the comment was “vintage McGahn.”
“The idea that conflicts-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president? That has got to be Don,” a former FEC official agreed, according to Politico. “He is a bomb-throwing enabler,” said another. “I can hear him telling Trump, ‘There are no ethics rules that apply to you’ … McGahn is willing to make arguments to get what he wants, even if he thinks they are not plausible.”
The Flynn debacle, however, is only one legal fire for the administration McGahn is feeding instead of putting out. Trump’s Muslim travel bans were rolled out with little regard to how they might actually hold up in a court — something the president’s top counsel would typically be on top of — leading to them being nearly immediately struck down. And as with most members of the administration, it’s unclear whether McGahn’s shortcomings are the result of incompetence or arrogance.
“There is no nice way to say it — at some point, McGahn will be an asshole,” conservative lawyer Steve Hoersting told FEC Commissioner Matthew Petersen in a 2008 email. “He’ll insist he knows the better course on an issue and will insist you go along. Don likes to employ the ‘trust me’ method of persuasion.”
That strategy may have served McGahn well in the past, but we’ll see how well it serves him in the White House, where his job is helping the president to avoid stepping in shit, not laying fresh piles for him.