Don McGahn, the White House counsel, during a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. McGahn will be leaving the administration this fall, Trump tweeted on August 29. Picture: Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Don McGahn, the White House counsel, during a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. McGahn will be leaving the administration this fall, Trump tweeted on August 29. Picture: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Trump boots out White House lawyer via Twitter

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman Time of article published Aug 30, 2018

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Washington - President Donald Trump surprised Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, on Wednesday by abruptly announcing that McGahn will be leaving his job this fall, effectively forcing the long-anticipated exit of a top adviser who has cooperated extensively in the investigation into Russian election interference.

The president made the declaration on Twitter without first informing McGahn, according to people close to both men. It came 11 days after The New York Times reported the degree to which McGahn — who was by Trump’s side at major moments as the president sought to keep control of the Russia inquiry — has emerged as a key witness in the investigation. Over the past nine months McGahn has given 30 hours of testimony in at least three voluntary interviews.

McGahn’s departure leaves the White House without one of the few senior advisers who has been willing to push back against Trump. It also raised the prospect of further West Wing exits, particularly in the White House Counsel’s Office, where McGahn has had a loyal staff, with several people staying in their jobs out of devotion to him.

McGahn had long discussed his intention to leave at some point. But the way Trump blindsided him with a tweet underscored how dysfunctional the relationship had become — even as the Russia inquiry appears to be reaching a critical phase, and the president is under mounting legal scrutiny.

Trump’s decision did not appear to be a direct response to the disclosure that McGahn had been cooperating closely with the special counsel, Robert Mueller — a fact his team was aware of — though its timing inevitably led to questions about whether the president was cutting loose an aide who he believed had provided damaging information about him.

But Wednesday afternoon at the White House, Trump praised McGahn and said he had nothing to fear about what his counsel had told Mueller, even as he appeared to confirm that he was not completely aware what that was.

“I don’t have to be aware,” Trump said. “We do everything straight. We do everything by the book. And Don is an excellent guy.”

In his tweet Wednesday morning, Trump said McGahn would leave after the Senate votes on the confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, the culmination of a quiet but intensive effort he has directed to remake the federal courts by installing scores of conservative judges.

“I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service!” Trump said in the Twitter post.

But the relationship between the president and McGahn has been rocky since he failed to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself a year ago from the Justice Department’s investigation. The two men also clashed again in June last year after Trump asked McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump ultimately backed down after McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out the president’s directive.

McGahn’s departure has been rumored for months, and he had told Trump earlier this year that he planned to step down soon but had not settled on a date. At the time, Trump told McGahn he was reluctant to let him go. But the two men have not discussed the matter recently.

The president’s tweet was precipitated by a report on the Axios website that McGahn planned to leave after the confirmation of Kavanaugh. Hearings on the nomination will begin next week.

Trump had grown tired of seeing reports that McGahn might leave, according to people familiar with his thinking, and decided to take away any wiggle room he might have. According to those people, McGahn believed the story was planted by his critics to force the president’s hand and hasten the timeline of announcing his departure.

Among those critics have been Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Ivanka Trump complained bitterly to her father about The Times report this month, which detailed how some in the White House were unaware of the extent of McGahn’s cooperation with Mueller, according to a person briefed on the discussion.

One person close to Ivanka Trump insisted that she had not criticized McGahn over his appearance before Mueller and that she had not played a role in his departure.

Trump and his White House counsel had already grown distant, with the president bristling at being advised not to take actions that could draw legal scrutiny, and McGahn becoming increasingly weary of serving a client who often refused to listen to legal reasoning.

McGahn had tried to lay the groundwork for his resignation by persuading Trump to hire Emmet T. Flood — who was part of the legal team that represented President Bill Clinton in his impeachment proceedings — as his lead White House lawyer dealing with the special counsel inquiry, to position Flood to then succeed him, according to people close to the discussions.

Still, some Republicans reacted to the news of his impending departure with alarm. In a tweet, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pleaded with Trump not to let him leave the White House.

But some members of conservative legal circles in which McGahn has worked suggested that he had grown frustrated with serving as the top lawyer in a White House that has drawn more than the usual share of legal scrutiny.

George T. Conway III, who withdrew last year as Trump’s choice for a top post in the Justice Department and is Kellyanne Conway’s husband, responded to Grassley by tweeting, “remember the eighth amendment, senator.” It was a reference to the prohibition in the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.

New York Times

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