President Donald Trump’s top White House lawyer, Don McGahn, is expected to step down later this year, though his resignation is contingent on the president finding a replacement and several other factors, according to four sources familiar with McGahn’s thinking.
McGahn, according to two of the sources, has signaled interest in returning to the Jones Day law firm where he previously worked and reprising a role he had during the 2016 campaign by handling legal matters for Trump’s re-election.
But the exact timing for McGahn to make any move remains in flux. He’s told associates he’d like to leave the White House by the summer, but it could also be put on hold through the 2018 midterms.
Concerned about the velocity of turnover inside his White House and beyond — Trump personal lawyer John Dowd resigned on Thursday, and the president has made changes atop the State Department, CIA and the national security adviser slot — sources said Trump wants to have a new White House counsel in place who he’s comfortable with before clearing McGahn for the exits.
“I think it’s all up in the air,” said a source close to McGahn. “I think he'd like to quit very much. The president doesn't want him to quit. The president wants him to stay. I don't think he knows who will replace him.”
McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission member, was one of Trump’s earliest political advisers, signing on even before the Republican announced his presidential campaign in the spring of 2015.
As White House counsel, McGahn has played a prominent but controversial role shepherding Trump’s Cabinet picks through confirmation, as well as notching lifetime appointments for 29 federal judges, including Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. McGahn has also been central to the reversal of myriad Obama-era policy regulations dealing with the environment and energy, health care, financial services and other industrial sectors.
“He can look at his first 14 to 16 months and say he’s probably had a pretty good run,” said a second McGahn associate.
A third McGahn associate said his departure also may hinge on whether there’s another opening for Trump to fill on the Supreme Court — an impossible-to-predict scenario but one that could present a unique legacy opportunity for the White House counsel. “I think if we had a possibility of getting another Supreme Court justice, I think he’d hang in,” the source said.
A White House spokesman declined comment. McGahn did not respond to requests for comment about his job plans or a potential return to Jones Day, where he was paid an annual salary of $2.4 million as a partner before joining government, according to a 2017 financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics.
McGahn’s departure would also free him from some of the daily turmoil associated with playing a prominent role in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The White House counsel told the president in January 2017 that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled both the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., which led to Flynn’s firing.
On Trump’s orders, McGahn tried without success last March to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the whole probe. McGahn also had a role in last May’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. And Trump tried to get McGahn in June to press the Justice Department to examine potential grounds for firing Mueller.
McGahn ignored the president’s requests, telling then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-senior strategist Steve Bannon that he’d resign if the president didn’t stop asking him about the issue.
The Russia portfolio shifted out of McGahn’s hands last summer with the arrival of Ty Cobb, whose daily responsibilities included White House document production and lining up current aides to meet with Mueller for interviews.
But Cobb and McGahn still clashed over whether Trump should be so cooperative with the special counsel. McGahn urged the president to assert executive privilege on some documents being sought, but Trump followed Cobb’s counsel and did not block any document production, according to sources familiar with the president’s legal strategy.
McGahn has met on at least two occasions for interviews with Mueller’s prosecutors. During a recent visit he shared details about the president’s reaction to a January New York Times story that described how McGahn had resisted his order to fire Mueller.
Trump denied that he’d made any such request and asked then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter to get McGahn to issue a statement disputing the article. If McGahn refused, Trump told the aide that he could be fired.
The Trump and McGahn relationship is by many accounts a complicated one. Two sources said they speak infrequently. Another noted that McGahn remains close to White House chief of staff John Kelly and that Trump does indeed rely on his top counsel.
“It's hard to explain, but I think [Trump] values Don and his advice, and part of it isthat Don is probably one of the only people who's ever said ‘no’ to him,” one of the McGahn associates said.
A list of candidates to replace McGahn remains a work in progress.
Several elite attorneys, including former George W. Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, Robert Giuffra Jr. and Reid Weingarten, declined job offers from Trump last spring to work on his Russia response. Former George W. Bush attorneys Bill Burck and Emmet Flood also rejected overtures for the position that Cobb accepted to work in the White House.
Flood subsequently met with the president earlier this month at the White House, though it’s unclear if that has led to a job offer. Another name mentioned this week by a source close to Trump: Jay Clayton, the current chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Said one former senior White House lawyer, “Coming in now, it would take a brave soul.”