Devoted to political ideals (in his case libertarianism) and educated at Notre Dame, Widener University and Georgetown, McGahn’s background reflects the kind of intellectual rigor that makes him Trump’s opposite. Part of the Washington legal elite, his pre-Trump experience placed him among the more devoted advocates for the institutional Republican Party.
Well-established in what might be called the permanent governing class, McGahn has moved in and out of law, government, and partisan politics. This would make him suspect among Trump’s more rabid drain-the-swampers, and it does indicate a certain devotion to the kind of bureaucratic careerism that makes Washington a golden goose for well-connected lawyers.
This devotion is also indicative of someone who is reluctant to break norms in the way Trump does — a recognition of a future in politics beyond four or eight years. Presidents come and go. People like McGahn stay for a lifetime, just as long as they play by the rules.
McGahn, you will recall, refused the President’s orders to help push Mueller out of his post as the special counsel investigating Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, which favored Trump.
As Mueller reported, McGahn and others in the White House knew that Trump was upset that he didn’t have a tough-guy lawyer like the infamous and scurrilous Roy Cohn who was his personal attorney for years. That he wanted the White House counsel to play this role was clear. So was the danger that would arise if McGahn acquiesced.
To which Trump replied, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”
Always fact-resistant, Trump has long sought to control what others know about everything from his behavior to his financial conditions, which explains his predilection for imposing non-disclosure agreements on employees and his determination to keep his tax returns secret.
A real lawyer like McGahn, who knew his client was the office of the President and not the person of Donald Trump, held to the lawyerly habit of note-taking because he knew that documentation could be in the public interest.
On a personal level, McGahn had his own interest in notes that would protect him from peril as the President was clearly intent on obstructing the Mueller investigation.
It’s to McGahn’s credit that he refused to accommodate Trump, and at one time packed up his office because he thought he would have to resign over the President’s criminal suggestions.
The judiciary committee’s request for his testimony presents another test of his values, and his response will establish his place in history. That he bowed to the White House and stayed away does not mean the matter is settled. Indeed, if he had jumped to testify he might have been seen as too eager and thus, suspect.
Turns out that McGahn, who is cool to Trump’s hot and reserved in the face of the President’s chaos may be playing his own game, in order to protect himself and, perhaps, our democracy.