White House counsel Don McGahn’s final day at the White House was Wednesday, according to a White House official and a source with knowledge of the matter.
McGahn has been planning to leave the White House, but a source told CNN his departure was expedited after President Donald Trump said Tuesday he had selected Patrick Cipollone as his successor. Cipollone is a seasoned litigator and former Justice Department official who served during President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
A White House official said McGahn had a 20-minute farewell meeting with Trump Wednesday and that it was a “good meeting,” with the President ticking off McGahn’s accomplishments.
White House chief of staff John Kelly was hoping that McGahn would stay through the end of the year, according to the White House official, but McGahn felt it was time to move on. There was no fanfare to the departure — McGahn just felt the timing was right — and he informed the President and then Kelly, according to the official.
“Typically you would have the incumbent stay until the successor was ready to take his place. But in this case McGahn was tired of the President and the President was tired of McGahn,” a source told CNN.
McGahn leaves his post after serving as White House counsel through the tumultuous first 18 months of Trump’s presidency, steering the White House’s handling of the Russia investigation and responding internally to the President’s mercurial moods as the investigation ballooned.
McGahn has been the key architect of Trump’s efforts to reshape the federal courts, and helped secure that part of the President’s conservative legacy. McGahn, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, successfully shepherded two Supreme Court nominees onto the bench as well as 84 new federal judges since the President’s inauguration.
McGahn, a longtime friend of new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, orchestrated Kavanaugh’s introduction to the President. Both Kavanaugh and McGahn served in President George W. Bush’s administration and have deep ties to Washington’s legal community.
As Kavanaugh was voted in after allegations of sexual misconduct almost derailed his confirmation, McGahn praised the President and told CNN, “President Trump stayed firm. Others would have cut and run when things got tough.”
His departure is another one from the handful of top aides who worked on the Trump campaign before joining the White House. McGahn served as the Trump campaign’s top attorney throughout the GOP primary and 2016 presidential election, becoming a trusted adviser to the future President in the process.
But McGahn immediately faced controversy in his earliest days at the White House, beginning with acting Attorney General Sally Yates’ warning to McGahn that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia and that he had likely lied to Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn was forced to resign after reports revealed Yates’ warning to McGahn about Flynn’s conduct.
As the Justice Department and congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election heated up, McGahn found himself increasingly at the center of Trump’s and the White House’s response to the investigation.
And when Attorney General Jeff Sessions faced pressure to recuse himself, Trump enlisted McGahn to urge Sessions not to take that step. Sessions eventually did recuse himself, giving his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, the ultimate authority to appoint a special counsel.
McGahn threatened to resign in the summer of 2017 after Trump ordered him to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling and questions of obstruction of justice.
For McGahn, the President’s order to fire Mueller was a bridge too far — with the White House counsel refusing to follow through on the order, a person familiar with the matter told CNN. The New York Times first reported Trump’s move to fire Mueller and McGahn’s refusal to carry out the order.
The slew of incidents involving the President and McGahn amid the Russia investigation made the White House counsel an important witness in Mueller’s investigation, with McGahn sitting for interviews with Mueller’s team in December.
Trump was reportedly caught off guard and unnerved by the disclosure that McGahn had cooperated extensively with Mueller’s probe and participated in several interviews spanning 30 hours over the last nine months. Trump did not know the full extent of McGahn’s discussions, two people familiar with his thinking said.
Before joining the Trump campaign and the White House, McGahn worked at the powerful DC law firm Jones Day and previously served as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.