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How a Corporate Law Firm Led a Political Revolution


In early 2016, McGahn, traveling with the Trump team in Iowa for its caucuses, got word that Jonathan Bunch, who on the time was the top of external relations on the Federalist Society, desired to speak to someone on the campaign. Perhaps greater than another interest group, the Federalist Society was a kingmaker in Washington’s conservative circles, serving as a feeder for the federal courts and as a gatekeeper for aspiring Republican politicians. McGahn, who was the president of the society’s local chapter in law school, called Bunch from his hotel room overlooking downtown Des Moines. Bunch explained that the group was surveying the foremost candidates and desired to know if the Trump camp had given much thought to the styles of judges he might nominate if elected. “You’ve got nothing to fret about with us,” McGahn recalled assuring him.

That March, about two dozen Republicans — senators, House members, lobbyists, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, amongst others — showed up at Jones Day’s neoclassical constructing on Capitol Hill for lunch. McGahn convened the session to assist the conservative establishment gain comfort with the Republican Party’s unorthodox front-runner. The thought was that Trump would deliver temporary remarks after which take questions. It had been only just a few weeks since Antonin Scalia’s sudden death. Mitch McConnell had made clear that he wouldn’t allow a vote on anyone President Barack Obama nominated to switch him. The subsequent president, due to this fact, would get a right away emptiness to fill on the Supreme Court. McGahn and Trump had plotted about learn how to use this unexpected development to shore up conservative support for his candidacy. Today they might roll out a key phase of their strategy.

After Trump spoke for just a few minutes, Leo invited him to speak about judges. “Why don’t I put out an inventory publicly of people that may very well be the kind of people I’d placed on the Supreme Court?” Trump suggested, as McGahn later recalled. The room reacted with joy. (He and Leo have at times given divergent accounts of the fateful meeting; in Leo’s telling, McGahn had asked him to bring an inventory of names.) If Trump would publicly commit to choosing Scalia’s successor from an approved list, well, that will do lots to assuage conservatives’ concerns a few guy who had previously supported abortion rights. The ultimate list of potential Supreme Court picks would take months to return together — a team led by McGahn and Leo scoured the candidates’ court opinions — but it surely would turn into an important turning point for Trump’s campaign. “The list reassured a complete lot of Republicans,” McConnell explained at a Federalist Society meeting in Kentucky in 2019, appearing alongside McGahn. The creation of the list “became the only biggest issue bringing our side in line behind him.”

About per week after Trump won the 2016 election, McConnell called McGahn to speak strategy; there have been greater than 100 federal judicial vacancies, largely because McConnell had been refusing to carry votes on Obama’s nominees. (When Obama entered office, there had been roughly half as many unfilled judgeships.) It was widely expected that Trump was going to tap McGahn to be his White House counsel. Now the Senate majority leader advised McGahn to insist that the president assign judge-picking authority to him and him alone — a break from the tradition in previous administrations, where a gaggle of experts tended to debate the merits, substantively and politically, of varied candidates. Just do that yourself, McConnell advised. McGahn pitched the concept to Trump. Trump said sure.

McGahn was poised to wield immense power — and so was his firm. Apparently consequently of Jones Day’s immersion with the Trump campaign, and McGahn’s planned elevation to White House counsel, the firm’s lawyers soon became accountable for identifying and scrubbing candidates for a lot of positions within the White House and the Justice Department. The work was unpaid. (Some Jones Day attorneys told me they objected to devoting pro bono hours to the Trump transition, but they were overruled.) Why was Jones Day willing to do it? Partly, it seemed, since it provided the firm with a novel opportunity to seed a recent administration with its own staff.

Within the White House Counsel’s Office, McGahn surrounded himself along with his old colleagues. Greg Katsas, a Jones Day partner who helped lead the Justice Department’s transition planning, can be his deputy. Annie Donaldson, who had followed McGahn from Patton Boggs, can be his chief of staff. A minimum of three other Jones Day employees can be heading there, too. William McGinley landed the White House job of cabinet secretary. Jones Day attorneys occupied the upper echelons of the Justice Department and were perched near the highest of the Commerce and Agriculture Departments. Agencies charged with regulating energy markets and the security of consumer products would have commissioners from Jones Day. The Jones Day lawyer poised for the highest-ranking government post, except for McGahn, was Noel Francisco, whom Trump nominated to be solicitor general. That meant the firm would have its recent partners planted in two of probably the most powerful legal jobs within the U.S. government.

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