Top White House Lawyer Donald McGahn Sits At The Center Of Controversy Lawyers are dissecting the performance of White House counsel Donald McGahn — and the top lawyer at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is getting mixed reviews amid several Trump administration controversies.


Top White House Lawyer Donald McGahn Sits At The Center Of Controversy

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The top lawyer in the White House has a challenging job in ordinary times. These are not ordinary times. Four months into the Trump administration, White House counsel Donald McGahn has had to contend with high-profile court cases, national security threats and a special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us in the studio.

Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about Don McGahn, if we could. He was the campaign's lawyer, right?

JOHNSON: He was. He built a career here in Washington representing a lot of politicians on campaign finance and ethics issues. One of his more prominent clients was Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, a Texan better known as The Hammer.

SIMON: The Hammer.

JOHNSON: And Don McGahn was a bit of a hammer himself. He led the Federal Election Commission under President George W. Bush, and liberals on the commission have criticized him for trying to grind that oversight work to a halt. Don McGahn's also kind of an iconoclast. He played guitar in a band influenced by heavy metal and has a little bit longer hair than you'd see on most establishment Republicans these days.

SIMON: You spoke with lawyers from both political parties about Don McGahn. What are some of the things you've heard?

JOHNSON: Well, they've been kind of critical of his performance so far. They talk a lot about the executive orders on - President Trump's travel ban, trying to limit travel from - for people from six majority-Muslim countries. Those have been blocked by the courts. Also this past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions significantly narrowed another of the president's executive orders, this one on sanctuary cities. Then, Scott, there have been problems with vetting, vetting high-level people in the White House, most notably former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who's now under investigation for undisclosed meetings and payments from people in Russia and Turkey.

And then, Scott, there's been a lot of concern about how Don McGahn has been policing contacts between the White House and the Justice Department. In past administrations, there's been a desire to protect the independence of law enforcement. But we know from Donald Trump's own statements that he had several chats and communications with James Comey, the FBI director he later fired. Comey has written memos about those conversations. We think those memos are likely to be evidence in whatever investigation the special counsel is doing on Russia and why James Comey was fired by the president.

SIMON: President Trump hired a personal attorney this week, presumably to give him advice about the Russian investigation. Are others in the White House lawyering up?

JOHNSON: A lot of people. In fact, two sources told me this week Don McGahn is going to need a lawyer himself. He's likely to be a witness in whatever investigation there is moving forward in Russia. Even if these folks have no legal jeopardy, it's really expensive and distracting for them to need legal advice. This happened under President Bill Clinton and President Ronald Reagan. It's likely to drag on for a long time.

SIMON: Don McGahn, to be sure, has defenders in Washington, D.C., who are very impressed by him. Aren't they?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, there's been a lot of praise in some circles for the people he's hired to work in the White House, the young lawyers working underneath him - seven former Supreme Court clerks, graduates from Ivy League law schools at the top of their game. And then there's this. It's hard to tell from outside the Oval Office whether Don McGahn is giving President Donald Trump all the right legal advice and President Donald Trump is just ignoring him.

One lawyer told me this week, it'd be shocking if Don McGahn hasn't been advising the president to stop tweeting derogatory comments about judges, to stop issuing veiled threats against his former FBI Director James Comey. The thinking is this president, who comes from the world of real estate and construction, doesn't have a lot of respect for lawyers and thinks he knows best.

SIMON: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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