Episode 16: ‘Mr. McGahn’
Producer/Director Singeli Agnew
Most Americans may not know Donald F. McGahn II’s name, but they’ll likely live with his legacy for decades to come.
As White House counsel for the first 21 months of President Trump’s term, McGahn helped push through lifetime appointments for more than 100 conservative judges, including the successful nominations of Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, credits McGahn with accomplishing a key Republican priority, and Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, says McGahn engineered one of the administration’s most durable accomplishments. “Why the left is triggered by Trump is because they understand they’re in a Kafkaesque nightmare, that Donald Trump is going to be in their personal lives 10, 20 and 30 years from now – and the reason is Don McGahn,” Bannon says on the latest episode of “The Weekly.”
Trump’s critics are worried that even if Democrats manage to take back the White House and control of the Senate in 2020, “there is a third branch of government that’s been taken over by one party,” says Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton aide.
Our reporters look at McGahn’s success in reshaping the American judiciary, which won him praise from conservatives, and they examine his falling-out with Trump over McGahn’s role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, where he was the most cited witness in the Mueller report.
Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent who was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. Follow her on Twitter: @maggieNYT.
Michael S. Schmidt is a Washington correspondent who was a part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 — one for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues and the other for coverage of President Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia. Follow him on Twitter: @nytmike.
McGahn’s White House Highlights
McGahn signed on to the Trump campaign in 2015, at a time when few Washington insiders were willing to embrace the candidate. During the campaign, McGahn helped craft a list of conservative judicial candidates for Trump. When he accepted the role of White House counsel after Trump’s victory, McGahn set out to fill federal circuit court vacancies as fast as possible, Michael says on “The Weekly.”
President Trump relied on McGahn to see that Trump’s Supreme Court picks — Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — were confirmed. McGahn also advised Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearing.
As he was busy remaking the federal judiciary, McGahn had to contend with the fallout from the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the Mueller report, Trump ordered McGahn to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, but McGahn threatened to quit. Trump ultimately backed down.
Even though Trump’s lawyers later gave McGahn the green light to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, the president viewed it as an act of betrayal. McGahn’s actions may have ultimately protected the president from an obstruction of justice charge, but the details that appeared in Mueller’s report angered the president.
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Director of Photography Andreas Burgess
Video Editor David Herr
Associate Producer Brennan Cusack