Donald McGahn Once Said He Represented 'Pictures on the Wall,' Not Trump

A few months after leaving the Trump administration, Donald McGahn said he viewed his role as White House counsel as representing the office of the president, rather than Trump himself.

“I like to say I represent the pictures on the wall,” McGahn said during an event at Oxford University in February. “I represented the powers of the presidency: not the man, but the office.”

Those remarks, made public in a video posted Monday, give further insight into McGahn’s relationship with President Donald Trump. McGahn left the White House in October, but during his time in the administration, he cooperated extensively with special counsel Robert Mueller III’s inquiry into whether Trump sought to obstruct justice while in office.

That cooperation was spelled out in a redacted version of Mueller’s report that was released last week. And McGahn could give more information: on Monday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler issued a subpoena for McGahn’s testimony and documents as Democrats probe possible acts of obstruction of justice, public corruption and other abuses of power.

During the February event, McGahn said he didn’t view the president as “wrongfully” expecting him to act as his personal attorney. He described Trump instead as a businessman and political newcomer who was used to “doing things his way.”

Trump “has been very effective doing things his way,” McGahn said, adding: “Quite unorthodox, but when he does things his way, it’s remarkable how early on many people say that’s not going to work, and it tends to work out. So I saw it as my challenge to make sure he understood the difference, but it’s not something you instinctively think of if you haven’t been in government and haven’t been in elected office before.”

Here’s what else McGahn said about Trump, and his time at the White House:

On his relationship with Trump: McGahn spoke cautiously about the Mueller investigation during the event, and declined to directly answer a question about whether Trump had set up his former White House counsel to “take the blame” for potential acts of obstruction. But he said of his relationship with Trump: “I did my best for the president every day and I think the president did by me great every day as well. So I think between me and him, everything is, is—I did my job, he did his job. What others have said to the press, what other hidden agendas other staff may have had and whatever the media is speculating, we’ll just leave it at media reports for that, for now.”

On Alexander Acosta’s nomination: McGahn said he recommended nominating Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to the post. In a discussion about the Federalist Society and how it’s become a network for lawyers, McGahn said he met Acosta in 1995 at the conservative group’s annual National Lawyers Convention. He noted they had both just moved to D.C. “We kept in touch,” McGahn said. “President Trump needed a secretary of labor. I said, ‘I know a guy.’ He’s secretary of labor.”

“There’s a little more to be secretary of labor than that,” McGahn said, drawing laughter from the crowd: “The people you grow up with tend to be your peers when you get older, too, so the Federalist Society has been a network for me and my colleagues for years, so I don’t shy away from saying they’re heavily involved; I’m a member, wear it proudly, and view it as a Democratic talking point to try to say there’s some weird thing afoot.”

On Kavanaugh declining a keynote: In a discussion of how judges try to stay “above the fray,” McGahn said Justice Brett Kavanaugh turned down an opportunity last year to deliver the keynote speech at the Federalist Society’s annual gala. McGahn said: “Justice Kavanaugh declined being the keynote speaker. He went—a bunch of justices go—but he decided not to be the speaker.”

McGahn said that he, as a result, ended up participating in a question-and-exchange answer with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. He said of Kavanaugh’s move: “That was a symbolic gesture; Justice Kavanaugh trying to let the public know he was joining—he would call it a team of nine.” He said: “I think that kind of talk gives confidence of the court trying to get it right.”

As McGahn noted, Kavanaugh attended last year’s event, where he received a standing ovation. Trump’s other confirmed appointee to the Supreme Court—Justice Neil Gorsuch—did deliver a keynote speech at the group’s annual gala the year before.

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