President-elect Donald Trump’s selection Friday of a controversial ethics attorney and consummate insider to be his White House legal counsel drew criticism from advocates who want a revamp of campaign-finance laws.
Trump’s transition team announced that Donald F. McGahn II will serve as special assistant to the president and White House counsel.
“Don has a brilliant legal mind, excellent character and a deep understanding of constitutional law,” Trump said in a statement. “He will play a critical role in our administration, and I am grateful that he is willing to serve our country at such a high-level capacity.”
The pick was hardly a surprise, given that McGahn is serving as legal counsel to the Trump transition team.
Still, McGahn’s role in defending then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, in the early 2000s makes the pick a controversial one. Moreover, McGahn’s roughly five years on the Federal Election Commission marked a period when campaign-finance laws were loosened, allowing almost limitless donations from business.
“Donald Trump has never said whether he is for or against campaign-finance laws,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, an advocacy group pushing for more transparency in government. “The fact that Donald Trump is relying on Donald McGahn ensures we are not going to see any kind of (new) campaign-finance regulations coming out of Washington.”
An attorney in the Washington powerhouse law firm of Jones Day, McGahn also represented the National Republican Congressional Committee for almost a decade beginning in 1999.
In 2008, McGahn was sworn in as a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, a post he held until 2013. He served briefly as chairman, and when stepping down he cited his efforts to make the body more open and transparent as his top accomplishment.
McGahn is a notable choice as White House counsel given his specialty with ethics issues. At one point in his long career, McGahn defended DeLay, who became the face of questionable campaign-finance schemes. DeLay was indicted in 2005 on criminal charges of violating Texas election laws. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to three years in prison, but he was free during an appeal that overturned his conviction in 2013.
“I am honored to continue advising President-elect Trump in the Trump-Pence administration,” McGahn said in a statement. “President-elect Trump is a bold leader committed to draining the swamp in Washington and restoring economic prosperity and security. I look forward to serving the American public in this role.”
Because campaign finance and ethics issues are dominant debates in Washington, McGahn is viewed as a Washington insider. His wife, Shannon, has been staff director for the House Financial Services Committee since 2013. The panel oversees Wall Street and financial regulation, and its chairman, Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling, is mentioned as a possible selection by Trump for treasury secretary.
Shannon McGahn served as DeLay’s press secretary in 2005, the year he was indicted.
Trump’s presidency is unprecedented in that never before has anyone assumed the office while serving as a director for 584 companies, boasting a privately held family global business said to be worth more than $1 billion and presiding over a lot of gray areas about what does and does not have to be disclosed to the public, much less what the potential conflicts of interest are.
Trump made headlines almost immediately after winning the election by having his daughter Ivanka present during his first face-to-face meeting with a world leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump has said his daughter and two sons will take over his business empire. Ivanka Trump’s presence in the meeting was known only after photos surfaced in the Japanese media.
Similarly, Trump privately met with business partners from India, where he has towers built in or planned for four Indian cities. That meeting was not disclosed, either; Americans learned of it through stories in the Indian media.
“This bodes very poorly for an ethical administration,” Holman said of McGahn’s selection, following the series of apparent conflicts of interest.