Axios reported this morning that Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel and the West Wing’s quarterback on judicial nominations, would be out the door sometime this fall. He still had business to attend to, including the small matter of getting Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court, but after that he’d be riding off into the sunset after 18 or so very trying months.
Probably just fake news, though. Why, the president warned us just a few hours ago that “When you see ‘anonymous source,’ stop reading the story, it is fiction!” Well, Axios’s story was based on anonymous sources. Fake news!
Correction: Not fake news.
Trump likely saw the Axios report, dialed up McGahn to ask about it, got confirmation that it was true, then decided for whatever reason to make the news public. Or at least that’s how things might work in a normal White House.
In the Trump White House, drama and surprise twists infuse all things. Peak Trump:
McGahn did not know about Trump's tweet before it was sent and had not previously discussed his departure plans with POTUS, though it was open secret in the WH. He was surprised, though attitude was "of course it happened this way." https://t.co/csLnGJ4agm
— Rosalind Helderman (@PostRoz) August 29, 2018
Why Trump chose to announce it today rather than let McGahn walk away on his own timetable I leave to your own speculation. Given the state of the relationship between the two, maybe the answer is no more complicated than spite. It was McGahn, after all, who was recently revealed to have spent 30 hours talking to Bob Mueller about White House business, a revelation Trump played off as having been done with his full authority but which allegedly caught him off-guard. McGahn has also been lobbying Trump not to pardon Paul Manafort, although virtually every White House insider who’s spoken to the media about it thinks Trump will end up ignoring him and issue the pardon anyway. According to a report yesterday in Vanity Fair, he was even considering bringing in an outside lawyer to draft the pardon if McGahn flatly refused to do it.
It was McGahn too who supposedly threatened to quit last year when Trump decided he’d had enough of Mueller and that it was time to bring down the axe. The many, many fights between the president and his White House counsel have been “spectacular,” per WaPo’s sources. It could be that Trump’s having the last word today by ushering him towards the exit before McGahn’s fully prepared to leave.
Whatever the explanation, Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is all broken up about it — although since White House counsel isn’t a position that requires Senate confirmation, there’s nothing he or anyone else in Congress can do. If Trump wants a new lawyer in the West Wing, it’s his prerogative.
@realDonaldTrump I hope it’s not true McGahn is leaving WhiteHouse Counsel. U can’t let that happen
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 29, 2018
Why the virtual tears from Grassley? Likely it’s because no one inside the White House has had more influence over judicial picks than McGahn has, and he’s done a stellar job of it. He brought Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to Trump’s attention as well as a slew of young, well-qualified appellate court candidates. POTUS will run in 2020 on having delivered on his two big promises, a roaring economy and excellent judges, and he’ll be on firm ground with both thanks in part to McGahn. The caliber of judicial nominees will likely remain high in the post-McGahn era — there are other smart conservative voices, like Leonard Leo’s, that have Trump’s ear — but you never know what plot direction The Trump Show will take. Is it more likely that Judge Jeanine will make the shortlist for the Supreme Court once McGahn’s gone? Sure. Not a lot more likely, but more likely. Grassley’s already shuddering at the possibilities.
I think Trump wants a “wartime consigliere” now for both the next phase of the Russiagate probe and the likely scenario next year in which a newly Democratic House starts a snowstorm of subpoenas over the White House. That means replacing McGahn with Emmet Flood, a veteran of the Clinton impeachment wars who joined the Trump White House a few months ago. Axios says he’s the all-but-certain successor as White House counsel due in part to his rapport with POTUS and in part because he views investigations of the presidency more adversarially than the more compliant McGahn has seemed to. (“[Flood] thinks these investigators come and basically put a target on their backs, trying to overturn every aspect of their lives searching for a crime.”) Flood will be a better guard dog than McGahn was, but will he be as conservative in influencing judicial nominations? And, unlike McGahn, will he give the order to Rod Rosenstein to pink-slip Bob Mueller if Trump tells him to? The Trump Show’s going to be more suspenseful next year, not less.