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McGahn joins global law firm — and remains involved in Trump’s judicial choices

In this photo from July 2018, then-White House counsel Donald McGahn is seen on Capitol Hill as Supreme Court nominee Brett M.  Kavanaugh met with senators.
In this photo from July 2018, then-White House counsel Donald McGahn is seen on Capitol Hill as Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh met with senators. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel who at times clashed with President Trump over the ongoing special counsel probe but led his overhaul of the federal judiciary, told The Washington Post on Sunday that he will rejoin his former law firm, Jones Day, this month — a move that was long expected by his friends and keeps him ensconced in conservative legal circles.

McGahn, 50, said he will lead the firm’s government regulation practice as a partner in Washington and will stay involved with senior Senate Republicans as an outside adviser on nominations to the Supreme Court and federal courts.

“I enjoy the practice of law and I look forward to coming back to Jones Day,” McGahn said in an interview, adding: “I’m just going to practice law. No paid corporate speeches and no books, unlike some others who have worked in the White House.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will continue to seek his support on nominations.

“We keep in touch and talk from time to time,” McConnell said. “Some would argue we were co-conspirators going back to the 2016 campaign, where we worked on the number one priority I had and the president had.”

McGahn, who left the West Wing last October, was a key figure in the selection and confirmations of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose nomination last year was roiled by sexual misconduct allegations.

According to two Senate GOP aides, McGahn has recently boosted Neomi Rao, Trump’s nominee to replace Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in phone calls with lawmakers. Rao has encountered some Republican resistance, with a few GOP senators questioning whether she would expand abortion rights.

McGahn declined to comment about private exchanges.

McGahn’s moves inside and outside the White House have drawn criticism for giving conservative groups such as the powerful Federalist Society and their allies too much influence in the judicial nomination process.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen the equivalence of the Federalist Society in any administration prior, either Republican or Democratic,” said Walter E. Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general for President Bill Clinton. “You have the White House, Federalist Society and Senate leadership working together in an unprecedented way.”

Leonard Leo, the group’s president, said McGahn has been “invaluable” to the conservative cause and will “continue to share information and ideas” with him and others at the Federalist Society.

During the Trump administration’s early months, McGahn was central in installing conservative lawyers throughout the government with the intent of curbing federal power — a low-profile but sweeping effort former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon described as “dismantling the administrative state.”

In the interview, McGahn said he was “proud and honored” to have helped Trump on judicial and regulatory work and did not have regrets about his experience.

McGahn’s latest practice at Jones Day will focus on related issues, working with private interests on regulatory matters and litigation, as well as on crisis management. It is a departure from his previous work on election law. McGahn said several colleagues from his time in the White House are planning to join him at the firm.

McGahn first joined Jones Day as a partner in 2014, after a five-year stint at the Federal Election Commission, where he served as chairman, often controversially, because of his push to weaken campaign finance regulations. He also was counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee. He was succeeded by White House counsel Pat Cipollone. Since October, McGahn has spent time with his family and made a handful of public appearances, including lectures at law schools, Oxford University and Ronald Reagan’s presidential library.

McGahn said he would not be lobbying, which requires lawyers and others to formally register with the federal government.

Jones Day, a well-known global law firm, counted the Trump campaign as a client throughout the 2016 campaign, with McGahn serving as the campaign’s attorney and occasionally hosting Trump and his advisers at its offices. When Trump won the New Hampshire primary, a smiling McGahn stood on the stage behind him.

The firm’s managing partner, Stephen Brogan, was once considered for a leading position on the president’s legal team.

McGahn’s tenure at the White House was marked by historic success in confirming Republican judicial nominees — 29 circuit judges and dozens more to district courts — and near daily turbulence as Trump lashed out at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

McGahn, especially during the beginning of Trump’s term, cautioned the president about contacting Justice Department officials and even told associates he was worried that Trump was doing so without his knowledge. The two men would have “spectacular” fights, according to a person who witnessed some of them and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private events.

McGahn has been interviewed by Mueller’s investigators several times and cooperated with them as they probe the president’s conduct and the possible obstruction of justice.

McGahn’s relationship with Trump’s family and top advisers — eldest daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner — was fraught because he regularly “had to tell them ‘no’ and they didn’t like to hear that,” according to a White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

When Trump early last year directed his then-chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to give Kushner a top-secret security clearance, both McGahn and Kelly wrote memos expressing their concerns, according to current and former administration officials.

Robert Barnes and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.