Career of Trump's Top Ethics Lawyer Marred by Questionable Ethics

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Career of Trump's Top Ethics Lawyer Marred by Questionable Ethics

Don McGahn is a "vociferous defender" of Citizens United, among other things

Election lawyer Don McGahn was described by Politico as "one of a growing number of people with ties to the Kochs to join Trump's administration." (Photo: Getty)

The attorney named as President-elect Donald Trump's White House counsel, Donald McGahn, has been called "kryptonite to campaign finance reform," "a totally partisan politico," and "notorious for politicizing and crippling enforcement of federal campaign finance laws."

Indeed, journalist Jon Schwarz wrote at The Intercept on Sunday that McGahn "bears as much responsibility as any single person for turning America's campaign finance system into something akin to a gigantic, clogged septic tank."

As one of six members of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from 2008-2013, McGahn "demonstrated a much stronger interest in expanding the money-in-politics swamp than draining it," Common Cause vice president Paul S. Ryan told Schwarz.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported in May, when McGahn was merely serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign:

McGahn was "perhaps the most consequential member of the FEC in its history," said Jan Witold Baran, a well-regarded Republican election lawyer and co-chairman of the election law and government ethics practice at law firm Wiley Rein. Baran said McGahn checked the authority of the agency's staff and general counsel and used his experience as a lawyer representing clients to win rights for political committees under the FEC's jurisdiction, including those the commission is investigating.

FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee, who frequently clashed with McGahn while both were on the commission, sees it differently.

"He was consequential like a sledgehammer was consequential," she said, adding, "he did his best to undermine the law."

"Now, as Trump's White House lawyer, McGahn will provide crucial advice on the nomination of judges, including to the Supreme Court," Schwarz noted. "While Trump has criticized Citizens United, and called the Super PACs that sprang up in its wake 'horrible' and a 'total phony deal,' McGahn is a vociferous defender of the ruling."

As White House counsel, McGahn will also be tasked with managing and mitigating Trump's many conflicts of interest and potentially establishing a trust to manage the president-elect's business holdings.

In other words, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Marty Kaplan wrote last week, "If a U.S. foreign policy decision appears to favor a Trump commercial project, it's McGhan's job to blow the whistle on the president."

"If you think that's going to happen," Kaplan quipped, "I've got a golf course with a nice view of a wind farm that I'd like to sell you."

He's already shown he's not up to the job, Arn Pearson of the Center for Media and Democracy wrote just before McGahn was officially named as counsel:

Either McGahn is giving bad advice that Trump can do as he pleases, or Trump isn't listening. Over the past few days, Trump has mixed business and politics in shocking ways, holding meetings with business partners from India and Argentina about developments branded with the president-elect's name in the midst of accepting visits from foreign dignitaries and selecting his cabinet.

Those scenes are all too reminiscent of [former McGahn client Tom] DeLay's fast-and-loose dealings, when the congressman faced pay-to-play allegations involving Jack Abramoff and Russian oil executives while being defended by McGahn.

Given McGahn's past performance, and Trump's flouting of the post-Watergate ethical norms followed by presidents for the past 40 years, the incoming administration may well be ensnared in serious ethics scandals of its own making by the time Trump is sworn in.

Or as Craig Holman of Public Citizen told The Intercept: "The selection of McGahn to be the chief ethics cop strongly suggests the new administration is likely to be scandal-ridden and eventually perceived by the public as business as usual."

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