White House counsel Don McGahn has largely stepped back from managing Donald Trump’s response to the expanding Russia investigation, but that hasn’t stopped the president from lashing out at him about it anyway.
Trump started the week by giving McGahn, a loyal supporter who was among the first Washington establishment figures to sign on with his presidential campaign, a dressing down in the Oval Office for not doing more to squash the Russia probe early on.
The episode — recounted by four people familiar with the conversation — came as part of a broader discussion on Monday about the president’s frustrations with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which now includes the question of whether Trump himself tried to obstruct the investigation by firing FBI director James Comey.
The Russia portfolio has been handed off to Trump’s longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz, leaving McGahn to focus on the standard duties of the top White House lawyer: vetting political appointees, selecting judges for vacancies in lower courts, and giving legal advice on potential legislation and other White House policy decisions.
Trump’s willingness to lay into him for the escalation of the probe — largely the result of Trump’s own decision to dismiss Comey — illustrates McGahn’s falling stock in the West Wing, as well as Trump’s desire to find someone to blame for his legal predicament.
“This is one of the misconceptions about the White House counsel’s office. Don represents the institution. What is going on with Russia and Mueller are matters involving Trump in his personal capacity,” said one informal but frequent adviser to the White House. “I am not sure the president completely understands how these roles are segregated.”
Neither the White House press office nor McGahn responded to a request for comment.
Veterans of Washington scandals said that there is often an adjustment when personal lawyers come in alongside attorneys working in an institutional capacity.
“As far as Don goes, I don’t think his role has significantly changed,” said Randy Evans, partner at the law firm, Dentons, friend to McGahn, and former outside counsel to then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. “There is a natural transition period, where you are figuring out where the turf lines are and there can be a little bit of overlap.”
But the president’s outburst at McGahn speaks to one of the most difficult aspects of working in the Trump White House. No top aide is immune from the president’s anger or being called out in front of colleagues, even long-time loyalists like McGahn who signed on in the early days of the campaign before Trump won the New Hampshire primary.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was publicly dumped from his perch as the head of the Trump transition team just days following the election, after he’d spent months prepping and hiring staff. Attorney General Jeff Sessions infuriated the president when he recused himself from the Russia investigations, after it came to light that he’d met twice with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign even though he was an early Trump supporter.
McGahn’s fall from the president’s good graces is particularly noteworthy because he occupies such a crucial role in the White House. He’s one of the few senior members of the administration with Washington chops. As a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, long-time campaign lawyer, and former attorney to House Republicans, he knows how to work the government’s levers of power, even if that involves jamming them up.
Critics of McGahn’s tenure at the FEC — the only other time he’s worked within the federal government — worried at the outset of the administration that McGahn would only enable the president’s worst instincts, based on the way they believe McGahn acted in a partisan manner at the FEC and ground the agency to a halt.
Trump first became irritated with McGahn after courts struck down the first executive order on the immigration and travel ban. Chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser for policy Stephen Miller took the lead in writing the order, yet it still went through the White House counsel’s office for a legal review. McGahn later issued a guidance that clarified parts of the first order to exempt legal permanent residents of the U.S. but that back-pedaling could still not save the policy. The White House had to put out a second order, which has also been challenged by a host of courts.
One Trump adviser said the president has repeatedly complained in private about McGahn’s handling of the travel ban appeal. In several calls, Trump said he couldn’t believe it was overturned over and over and then began reading a part of a federal statute he said gave him the right to ban immigration, after an aide showed it to him. “Then he started reading that in public,” this adviser said.
Trump was similarly displeased when Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigations in early March and, in a closed-door meeting, let McGahn know how unhappy he was.
One person who keeps in touch with the president said that while Trump gets angry at almost everyone on his staff, his outbursts at McGahn have been more frequent.
Unlike other staffers, this person said, McGahn doesn’t feel the need to always be near the president and often avoids the staff meetings where aides hover around “for no good reason.” He has sometimes shown impatience with Trump’s tendency to have senior aides in the Oval Office for meetings whether or not they need to be there.
McGahn contributed significantly to the president’s most striking successes. He handpicked Neil Gorsuch to be Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, personally shepherding him through meetings on the Hill and a smooth confirmation process. He also heavily advised the administration on the legal strategy to roll back several Obama-era regulations during Trump’s few months. Now, he is busy selecting judges for lower court appointments, efforts that could tilt the court system in conservatives’ favor for years to come.
Two other people who have spoken to Trump said the president’s displeasure with his counsel speaks to his concern about whether was getting good advice on the Russia investigation before Kasowitz came on board.
“I think Don has done a reasonable job as anyone could to keep things in perspective and to try to articulate to the president, ‘I can’t do the thing you’re suggesting. You have to let the process unfold,’” said the informal, frequent adviser about McGahn’s role in the Russia probes.
McGahn, as the White House’s top attorney, is meant to advise the administration on all legal matters from conflicts-of-interest to national security to the vetting of top political appointees and provide the White House with the legal underpinning for its decisions, while Kasowitz is meant to solely protect the president’s personal interests.
The White House’s decision to hand Kasowitz the Russia portfolio is very different from the way the Clinton White House handled the scandals it faced. While Trump’s White House press shop has diverted all Russia-related calls to Kasowitz and Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s legal defense, the Clinton White House set up its own internal crisis management shop, separate from the daily press staff yet still part of the White House.
Mark Fabiani took on this job starting in 1994 before shifting it over to Lanny Davis in 1996 to help with campaign finance and other crisis issues and to bridge the difference between the two White House operations. “I was in the gap between the press, the political aide and the legal side,” said Davis, who worked with the lawyers in the White House counsel’s office. “That’s what is missing in the Trump White House. Someone who is filling that gap.”
Davis went on to say that it made the most sense to him for McGahn to play that role in the Trump White House. "He knows Washington. He knows politics. He’s a great lawyer,” Davis said. "He’s in the best position to be the bridge as a lawyer between the White House lawyers and the press operation."
One prominent white-collar attorney close to the Russia probe told POLITICO that McGahn knows this history, familiar to most people in the world of Washington crisis management.
In the case of the Trump White House, Kasowitz has created a separate parallel legal office and has even met with administration aides without anyone from the White House counsel’s office present.
Friends and close associates of McGahn say that the addition of Kasowitz has been a relief to him and that he still spends lots of time in the Oval Office. “I don’t get the sense that the president has lost confidence in Don,” said one source close to the White House. “People just felt that he was spread too thin.”
Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.