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Don McGahn leaving Donald Trump White House after reports of Robert Mueller cooperation

August 30, 2018

White House counsel Don McGahn, who played a key role in President Trump’s transformation of the federal judiciary and worked to stave off the growing threat of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, will leave the White House in the fall, the president announced Wednesday.

Mr. Trump said Mr. McGahn will depart shortly after the expected confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. A confirmation hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

He made the announcement 11 days after reports said Mr. McGahn had submitted to 30 hours of questioning by Mr. Mueller’s team of investigators. The level of cooperation surprised even some in the White House.

Asked by reporters if he had any concern about Mr. McGahn’s testimony to the special counsel, the president said, “No, none at all. I had to approve it. We do everything by the book.

“Don McGahn’s a really good guy,” Mr. Trump said, predicting that “he’ll do very well” in the private sector.

Although Mr. McGahn’s departure had been anticipated for months, the timing of the president’s disclosure caught top congressional allies of the White House by surprise, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“If the reporting is true about Don McGahn’s time at the White House coming to an end later this year, it will be sad news for our country,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “Don is the most impressive White House counsel during my time in Washington, and I’ve known them all. Don’s significance to the judiciary, the White House and the nation cannot be overstated.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, tweeted that he hoped the report of Mr. McGahn’s departure was false, and he urged Mr. Trump not to “let that happen.”

Grassley spokesman George Hartmann said later that the lawmaker considers Mr. McGahn “integral” to confirming the president’s judicial nominees.

“From Sen. Grassley’s perspective, there’s not been any White House counsel who has worked so well and so efficiently with the chairman’s office and the Senate Judiciary Committee on judges,” Mr. Hartmann said.

Mr. Trump did not announce a replacement for Mr. McGahn, but the leading contender is veteran Washington lawyer Emmet Flood, who has been working in the White House counsel’s office since May, representing the president in the special counsel’s investigation.

“People like him. He’s super well-respected around the [White House] building, but there’s not a plan locked in place at this point,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Mr. Flood has represented several top officials in previous administrations, including President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He also represented President Clinton during impeachment proceedings in the late 1990s.

John Dowd, who resigned in March as the president’s lead counsel in the Mueller investigation, said Mr. McGahn “has been an outstanding White House counsel and served the president and his country with integrity, courage and brilliance.”

“I foresee no change in the White House’s approach to the special counsel investigation,” Mr. Dowd told The Washington Times. “Emmet Flood is doing a superb job.”

Mr. McGahn, 50, has been with Mr. Trump since the early days of his presidential campaign. In the White House, he earned a reputation as a steady hand amid sometimes chaotic staff turnover and escalating anxiety over Mr. Mueller’s investigation into suspected collusion with Russia.

“He had to start dealing with a president under siege on Day One,” said Republican consultant Mark Corallo, who worked with the Trump legal team last year. “He had to deal with a massive, highly politically charged investigation in which several White House staff members are implicated, and had to try to wall them off from discussing the investigation in earshot of anyone else in the White House to avoid making them witnesses. What a nightmare. And he did a great job.”

Mr. McGahn often found himself in the midst of battles with the president stemming from Mr. Trump’s anger at Mr. Mueller’s “witch hunt” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision early in the administration to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. When Mr. Trump sought the firing of Mr. Mueller in June 2017, Mr. McGahn reportedly threatened to quit.

One of Mr. McGahn’s primary roles has been in leading the administration’s effort to reshape the judiciary with a robust slate of conservative, law-and-order nominees, including Judge Kavanaugh and Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who was confirmed for the high court in April 2017.

Working with the conservative Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation, Mr. McGahn has helped select the president’s nominees in an ambitious effort that has installed a record number of conservative jurists on influential courts of appeals nationwide. The Senate has confirmed 26 appellate judges in 19 months, with 10 other nominees awaiting confirmation.

“This administration’s mandate on judicial selections is crystal-clear: Choose judges in the mold of Justice [Antonin] Scalia, Justice [Clarence] Thomas and now Justice Gorsuch,” Mr. McGahn told the Federalist Society last year.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said on Twitter, “Few have played a more critical role than Don McGahn in shaping the federal bench with individuals who understand the proper role of a judge under the Constitution.”

In addition to shepherding judicial nominations, Mr. McGahn has been responsible for other traditional roles of the post overseeing the vetting of high-ranking agency nominees, coordinating legal and ethics guidance across the administration, and serving as the protector and defender of White House staff.

“He treated the presidency as a cherished client,” Mr. Corallo said. “I found him to be an excellent lawyer, a really good guy, and a guy who was navigating the toughest tenure of any White House counsel that I can recall.”

Before joining the White House, Mr. McGahn, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, was a partner at Patton Boggs LLP and at Jones Day. He also served as counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Mr. McGahn’s departure adds to the high level of staff turnover in the Trump White House. In the first 18 months, resignations and ousters have included national security advisers Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster, presidential adviser Steve Bannon, communications director Hope Hicks, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, press secretary Sean Spicer, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, communications director Anthony Scaramucci, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh.

In addition, there have been a slew of firings and resignations at Cabinet agencies, including FBI Director James B. Comey, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

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