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Scoop: Former White House counsel Don McGahn off the record

Don McGahn
Don McGahn. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Don McGahn, who has kept his head down since leaving as White House counsel, shared some off-the-record thoughts on Thursday in a lunch with about 40 senior Republican Senate aides.

Details: "I spent the last couple of years getting yelled at," he said, per two sources at the lunch, held in the Capitol's Strom Thurmond room. "And you may soon read about some of the more spirited debates I had with the president." McGahn didn't explicitly mention Mueller's report, but sources in the room said they understood him to be referring to it when he said this.

Why it matters: McGahn was part of key conversations Mueller's team scrutinized when determining whether Trump obstructed justice — a decision Mueller declined to make.

McGahn was invited as part of a regular series of off-the-record lunches. Mitt Romney's staff served Mexican food. And while McGahn mostly praised Trump, he also hinted at the brutality of his tenure, according to sources who were there.

  • McGahn said the president runs the White House with a "hub and spokes model," often assigning the same task to multiple people. The point, per sources in the room, is that there is no chief of staff in the usual sense.
  • Trump doesn't trust one person as a gatekeeper, per McGahn. He dislikes intermediaries. And no member of staff is empowered because Trump is the hub and he makes the decisions; all the senior aides are spokes.

McGahn said a big part of his job as White House counsel was to deregulate and rein in the "administrative state."

  • He said he did that by writing deregulatory executive orders and picking judicial nominees who wanted to limit the power of federal agencies.
  • He talked about Trump nominating judges who agree that the courts have given too much flexibility to federal agencies to interpret laws and enforce regulations.
  • McGahn said they looked for potential judges who wanted to reconsider the "Chevron deference," which requires the courts to defer to federal agencies' "reasonable" interpretations of ambiguous laws.
  • McGahn said Trump's judges will spend 30–40 years unwinding the power of executive agencies.

McGahn marveled to the group about what Trump can get away with.

  • He said Trump could do something that's "180 degrees opposite" of what McGahn advised — but it somehow works. "If it was 179 degrees, it wouldn't work," McGahn said, according to the sources.
  • He said Trump usually takes the conservative side of any given debate — but makes decisions so fast that it was important for McGahn to get to Trump quickly before he announced a decision potentially based on bad information.
  • If Trump says something publicly, he said, it's hard to pull him back.