Counsel Quietly Trying to Corral Trump While Pushing G.O.P.’s Agenda

Mr. McGahn’s threat to resign is an example of how he has tried to both help and constrain an idiosyncratic client who hates to be managed and defies the norms of the presidency. Not everyone believes he has been successful.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and a former top Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote last year on the Lawfare blog that Mr. McGahn was either incompetent or ineffective — giving bad advice, or advice that his client ignored. Mr. Goldsmith said on Friday that there were too many unanswered questions about what happened in June to judge what it means for Mr. McGahn.

He might “have acted to protect the president, or himself, or both, from legal trouble,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “It’s hard to know, but the fact that McGahn has stayed in office during the subsequent seven months implies that there has not been a fundamental breach between the two men, unless perhaps this report signals one.”

Mr. McGahn, 49, did not respond to an interview request. Several people who know him say he is intensely focused on his mission while maintaining a wry sense of humor and ironic detachment. The stresses can be enough that he will cancel his afternoon meetings and leave the White House.

Mr. McGahn has spent most of his professional career in Washington, unusual in an administration that has largely kept out Beltway insiders. His wife, Shannon McGahn, is the staff director of the House Financial Services Committee.

But over the years he developed an unusual image for a conservative, growing his hair long and playing guitar for a rock band that specialized in 1980s cover songs until he had to focus on working for Mr. Trump.

That background dovetails with a policy record that is more libertarian than classically conservative. His specialty is election law, and at the Patton Boggs law firm, he worked under Benjamin Ginsberg, a veteran Republican campaign lawyer, defending clients against Federal Election Commission investigations into coordination between Republican campaign committees and outside groups.

Later, President George W. Bush appointed Mr. McGahn to serve as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, where he developed a reputation for unabashedly trying to stop what he believed were its regulatory excesses. But others saw his actions as preventing any regulations on campaign spending. After leaving the agency, he and Mr. Ginsberg left Patton Boggs for another firm, Jones Day.

“His outlook has always been on the fecklessness of overregulation by big government,” Mr. Ginsberg said, adding that the two “would spend countless hours” talking about what they saw as the foolishness of Federal Election Commission actions to “regulate the unregulatable” — that is, political campaign speech.

Since last summer, Mr. McGahn has played little role in dealing with the Russia investigation because the White House brought in outside lawyers — first Marc E. Kasowitz, and now Ty Cobb — to handle it. But in his more conventional work, which has been overshadowed by the attention given the legal sparring with Mr. Mueller, he has had a major effect on public policy through his support of efforts to dismantle regulations and his role in the administration’s aggressive attempt to fill vacancies in the upper reaches of the federal judiciary with deeply conservative judges.

“Everyone thinks about him in terms of the president’s ethics and all of that, but quietly, he has really tried to move the needle on things that conservatives care about a lot, which is the courts and the administrative state,” said Reginald Brown, a former associate White House counsel in the Bush administration. “That’s not as sexy, but it is far more consequential.”

As the chief architect of the administration’s judicial selection process, Mr. McGahn was the driving force behind Mr. Trump’s success in appointing not only Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but 12 appeals court judges in his first year — more than any president in modern history. That pace has not let up: Three more of Mr. Trump’s appellate nominees are pending on the Senate floor.

At the Federalist Society convention in November, Mr. McGahn joked that during the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s team had drawn up two lists of potential nominees — one of easily confirmable “mainstream” and “pragmatic” picks, and one of picks who held views that would “make some people nervous” and who were “too hot” for easy confirmation.

“I said the first list we’ll throw in the trash and the second list — that’s who we’re going to put before the U.S. Senate because I know Leader McConnell will get it done,” he said, referring to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.

Several people said Mr. McGahn has told some friends and colleagues that he has considered resigning over the past six months, but that Mr. McConnell has repeatedly urged him to stay. Mr. McConnell declined to discuss his private conversations with Mr. McGahn, but said through a spokesman that “President Trump picked the finest White House counsel I’ve ever worked with.”

With many more judicial vacancies yet to fill and Republicans still narrowly in control of the Senate — a window that might close if there is a Democratic wave in the midterm election this year — several other associates scoffed at the idea that Mr. McGahn would want to step down soon.

Mr. McGahn is experiencing “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that in his wildest dreams when he was going to law school he would never have imagined that he would have been in this position to have a direct effect on the courts for years to come,” said Michael Dubke, who served as White House communications director for Mr. Trump in the first half of last year.

“I am sure he’s thought about quitting — I doubt there is a person in any West Wing that hasn’t thought about it — but this is very important to him,” Mr. Dubke said. “He views this as this is going to be his ultimate imprint on American government.”

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