Why you should care
Because he’s Trump’s right-hand man, but he’s a walking contradiction.
Blue and green lights flicker across the stage, cutting through the fog machine smoke, as Scott’s New Band takes the stage in Ocean City, Maryland. Amid neon plastic cocktail glasses and Bud Light cans, the band begins playing Journey’s bar sing-along classic, “Don’t Stop Believin’” and the crowd goes wild. And if you look closely, off to the right in a yellow T-shirt and black hat, shredding on lead guitar, you’ll spot current White House counsel and President Donald Trump’s official lawyer, Mr. Donald McGahn.
These days, McGahn is searching in the night for a Supreme Court justice, overseeing Trump’s selection process to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy — with Trump set to announce the pick Monday. A rebellious libertarian, frequently described as an “iconoclast” by White House peers, McGahn and the president have more in common than their first names. The two men both seek an unwavering conservative who’s tough on immigration and lenient on big business. In 2017, McGahn succeeded in getting Justice Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the bench, and now he’s believin’ again.
A long-time conservative D.C. power player, McGahn, 50, is largely unknown but hugely influential. One of Trump’s earliest political advisers, he served as presidential campaign counsel and has been White House counsel from Day One of the Trump administration. Conservative activist and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition Ralph Reed points out that McGahn was in charge of compiling the campaign “short list” of potential Supreme Court nominees. “I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time on how critical that was to Trump’s election and how essential it was to conservatives generally and evangelicals in particular,” Reed says. On top of the high-profile Supreme Court selections, McGahn has been a part of one of the most consequential and under-the-radar developments of Trump’s administration: stocking the federal courts with dozens of conservatives with lifetime appointments.
Born and raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey, McGahn received his law degree from Widener University outside Philadelphia and began his career in campaign finance law. After nine years as chief counsel on the National Republican Congressional Committee, McGahn joined the Federal Election Commission in 2008, where he worked to loosen regulations on campaign spending. While at the FEC, he clashed horribly with his Democratic counterparts, once literally shredding the organization’s rule book and throwing pieces at Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub. “McGahn came in with the mission of trying to make the agency as ineffective as possible,” Weintraub told NPR.
McGahn’s shenanigans at the FEC, in addition to his ’80s guitar shredding, stand in contrast to his nickname among friends and colleagues for his dislike of attention-seeking: the Quiet Man. “He has a very understated style and doesn’t seek undue credit,” Reed says.
That hasn’t kept him out of the way of critics. McGahn’s role means he is responsible for enforcing the White House’s compliance with ethics rules, a job made particularly difficult by Trump’s business dealings and his daughter’s and son-in-law’s roles within the administration. This led former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub to call McGahn “a cancer who has done much to undermine anti-corruption mechanisms in this country,” in a CNN interview earlier this year.
Press reports indicate that McGahn’s style and Trump’s often clash, and there’s been friction over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. The New York Times reported in January that McGahn flatly refused and threatened to resign when Trump ordered Mueller’s firing. The president backed down.
McGahn is often rumored to be eager to leave the West Wing to return to a multimillion-dollar salary at Jones Day law firm and help out with Trump’s re-election. But for now he’s firmly planted next to Trump, carrying out a legacy-defining selection — for both of them.
Wondering who that new justice could be? Here are the key potential nominees.
Amy Coney Barrett
This Kentucky native and Notre Dame alum is a former Justice Antonin Scalia law clerk. Barrett, 46, is currently a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, covering districts in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. She’s a faithful Roman Catholic, which Democrats repeatedly voiced as a concern during her confirmation hearing last fall. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) lectured Barrett on the importance of keeping law and dogma separate and said she’s concerned “that the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Kavanaugh, 53, is a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the youngest judges ever to be nominated to the position. While working in the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Kavanaugh was a lead author of the infamous Starr Report — over 400 pages detailing the offenses of President William J. Clinton. Though modest, Kavanaugh stands out on the bench for his ambitious, maximalist written opinions.
Once in-house counsel for Ford Motor Company, Kethledge, 51, is a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, covering districts in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and his home state of Michigan. A self-described introvert, Kethledge penned a book in 2017 called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. He enjoys writing and prefers to work from his barn office in northern Michigan, sans Wi-Fi. In an interview with the legal news site Above the Law, Kethledge said he found it “distracting” when he first appeared on Trump’s short list to replace Scalia in 2016.
Another Michigan native who was nominated by Trump and confirmed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last year, Thapar served as assistant U.S. attorney in Ohio’s Southern District from 2002 to 2006. While in that position, he successfully prosecuted an estimated 40 people for mortgage fraud and an underground operation providing illegal immigrants with fake driver’s licenses. Thapar, 49, once sentenced an elderly nun to three years in prison for breaking into a U.S. storehouse and stealing bomb-grade uranium. When she argued that she was acting as a follower of Jesus Christ, Thapar replied that was “no excuse.” He would be the first Indian-American on the Supreme Court.
The runner up to Neil Gorsuch in the first Supreme Court selection show, Hardiman is based in Pittsburgh on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Hardiman, 52, was born in Massachusetts and financed his Georgetown Law education in part by driving a taxi — putting him outside the current court’s Ivy League pedigree. An active Republican before starting his climb on the judicial ladder, Hardiman has been a consistent conservative in his rulings on gun rights and other politically potent issues.
The Appointment Process
Step 1: The president selects a nominee — typically someone who shares his political ideology.
Step 2: Senate Judiciary Committee
- Vetting: The committee looks into the background, past legal decisions and finances of the nominee.
- First hearing: The nominee goes before the committee, typically a multiday affair where senators question the nominee’s credentials and the nominee tries to avoid saying anything controversial or interesting.
- Committee vote: The nominee is traditionally sent to the full Senate, even if a majority on the committee is opposed.
Step 3: Full Senate
- Senate floor debate: The chair of the Judiciary Committee leads the Senate in a debate on whether the nominee is qualified for the job.
- Final vote: A simple majority vote is required to confirm the nominee to the Supreme Court, after Republicans changed the rules to avoid a Democratic filibuster against Gorsuch.
- Doing the math: In this case, Republicans would need 50 votes plus a tiebreaker by Vice President Mike Pence. There are currently 51 Republicans in the Senate.