Don McGahn’s picture is conspicuously missing from the wall of former commissioners at the Federal Election Commission, and it’s nowhere on the agency’s website.
The former FEC chairman’s presence, though, is still felt, nearly three years after he resigned from the commission. Former colleagues and fellow lawyers describe him as a disruptor who proudly upended enforcement policies and contributed to the FEC’s current gridlocked state.
“I came here to work, to change the way the place thinks. I was proven right time and time again by court cases,” McGahn told the Center for Public Integrity shortly after stepping down.
McGahn is now a key player for the presidential campaign machine of an even more disruptive Donald — presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump — who’s rocketing toward a likely general election showdown with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
But the two Donalds are most curious partners.
Their working relationship’s tangled roots reach back decades to Atlantic City, where McGahn’s powerful uncle represented Trump’s business interests — until the alliance cracked in a bitter feud over money.
And the younger McGahn and Trump are hardly ideological soulmates. Trump has repeatedly railed against what he considers the poison of special-interest money in politics, while McGahn is best known for helping special interests play politics with as few restrictions as possible.
Perhaps it’s a marriage of convenience between a brash billionaire and one of the savviest campaign lawyers his money can buy. Regardless, McGahn is one of a small group of insiders who have been standing at Trump’s side since the mogul launched his unlikely, odds-defying bid last June.
McGahn has up to now operated mostly in the background — neither he nor the Trump organization would comment. But as the Trump campaign prepares its general election battle plan, McGahn, as campaign counsel, will inevitably serve as a powerful weapon in Trump’s quest for the Oval Office.
'Like a sledgehammer'
If Trump wins? Previous campaign lawyers to White House contenders have later molded administration policy in important respects. This means one of the nation’s most polarizing election lawyers could return to center stage — and not just thanks to the classic rock cover band he plays guitar with on weekends.
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.”
Boardwalk to Beltway
McGahn, 47, grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a place for people who aren’t afraid to roll the dice.
He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and received his law degree at Widener University in 1994. He worked on campaign and election law at then-Washington powerhouse Patton Boggs and was for a time an in-house lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican campaign arm for the U.S. House of Representatives.
He has also represented the campaign of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who faced a series of investigations in connection with his handling of political contributions. McGahn’s wife, Shannon McGahn, now staff director for the House Financial Services Committee, is a former spokeswoman for DeLay, and the former lawmaker attended their 2011 wedding. The couple has two young sons.
McGahn developed a reputation as an iconoclast: a Republican election lawyer who for a long time wore his shaggy hair long and played a mean Les Paul guitar for Scott’s New Band, hitting power chords on everything from Whitesnake to AC/DC.
“A beast on stage” with “skills as sharp as a samurai sword,” his band bio boasts.
When President George W. Bush nominated him to the FEC in 2008, some observers criticized McGahn as too partisan, even for an agency whose commissioners were expected to be associated with a party.
Now, of course, McGahn is working for Trump — a candidate whose rise has prompted countless pundits to posit the imminent destruction of the same Republican Party with which McGahn is so closely identified.
One parlor game in legal circles is guessing how Trump and McGahn connected in the first place.
A key clue is pedigree: Don McGahn is just the latest McGahn Trump has turned to for legal help.
Back in the day
In the early 1980s, when Trump was getting into the Atlantic City casino business, projects hinged on navigating the local regulatory process.
Patrick “Paddy” McGahn, New Jersey’s most highly decorated Korean War hero, was a political power broker. “Probably the resort’s best known and most powerful lawyer, his fees reportedly were the highest in town” — $300 an hour — according to the book "Trumped!," by John R. O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
In 1982, when Trump needed potentially valuable air rights for a casino project, Paddy McGahn pushed approval through in “lightning speed” and at a minimal price — $100, according to Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire."
“McGahn was the one who was able to work the crowd and get whatever Trump wanted done,” said Don Targan, a personal injury lawyer in Atlantic City who was close friends with Paddy McGahn for decades, until Paddy McGahn’s death in 2000.
Trump and Paddy McGahn were at one point so close, O’Donnell wrote, that Trump named a cocktail lounge in the grand Trump Taj Mahal casino “Paddy’s Saloon.”
In the early 1990s, however, Trump’s casino empire began to fall apart.
Trump Plaza’s lawyers, amidst the bankruptcy of their hotel/casino, challenged in federal court both Paddy McGahn’s bills and the effectiveness of his work.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars and his reputation at stake, Paddy McGahn fought back. Both Targan and McGahn’s lawyer in the case, Arthur J. Abramowitz, said the late war hero took the case personally.
“There was a falling out with a lot of animosity,” Abramowitz said. “[Paddy McGahn] had a lot of pride in what he did, and when somebody says that you do something not up to standards, I think it’s more than just denial of a debt.”
Abramowitz, who said he also represented other creditors in connection with the Trump bankruptcies, said it is unusual for a debtor to level allegations against a lawyer such as the ones leveled against Paddy McGahn — and McGahn was hit hard by it.
The two sides eventually filed documents with the court saying they had settled the case. The exact terms weren’t immediately available, but the order approving the settlement said Paddy McGahn was entitled to go back to court if Trump Plaza Associates failed to pay the money owed under the agreement. Both Abramowitz and Targan recall that Paddy McGahn collected a significant settlement from Trump Plaza Associates, though they don’t recollect a precise amount.
As for Paddy McGahn’s nephew’s current representation of Trump, Targan said, it “is amazing to me, and it just happened to be a freak of nature.”
Paddy McGahn, Targan added, is “probably turning over in his grave.”
Most every lawyer says it’s unfair to assume an attorney shares his or her clients’ views.
Even so, the disconnect between public stances taken by Trump and those taken by Don McGahn is striking.
McGahn has often cited free speech grounds in opposing restrictions on campaign spending, and he’s pushed back against federal enforcement cases, arguing that they could chill political speech.
“When elected officials are able to handicap and silence their electoral opponents, they will rarely refrain from doing so,” McGahn wrote last year, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Clinton’s campaign finance reform proposals.
McGahn is also known as a strong proponent of political parties.
Trump, in contrast, has called for revamping libel laws to make lawsuits easier to bring, something that makes most free speech proponents look askance. He has also repeatedly criticized the role the Republican National Committee has played in the primary process. He has yet to lay out specific proposals for overhauling the current system for regulating money in politics, but has repeatedly said the status quo breeds corruption.
“The system is broken,” he said during a Republican debate in March. “And frankly, I know the system better than anybody else, and I'm the only one up here that's going to be able to fix that system because that system is wrong.”
Trump’s assertion is steeped in hyperbole: There’s no way he knows the system as well as McGahn.
From 1999 until 2008, when McGahn was a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, he was an insider’s insider.
McGahn — together with fellow Republican FEC appointees Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen, currently chairman of the commission — then formed a powerful, united voting block from 2008 until he left the FEC toreturn to private practice at Patton Boggs in 2013. (He’s since jumped to another firm, Jones Day).
McGahn’s FEC tenure coincided with a series of federal court rulings, including the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which increasingly deregulated how campaign cash may be raised and spent. On a parallel track, McGahn and his allies drove changes in the way the commission did business, especially concerning how they punished — or didn’t punish — political actors suspected of violating federal rules and regulations.
“Whether you agreed with him or not he was a force to reckon with,” said Petersen, who was appointed to the agency at the same time as McGahn and allied with him throughout his tenure.
A force? Yes. A positive force? No, says former FEC general counsel Lawrence M. Noble, who is now general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that was often at odds with McGahn.
“His impact on the agency was to continue moving the agency down the road to where it is today, which is a non-enforcement agency,” Noble said, adding that McGahn was continually questioning “long-standing interpretations of the law and saying he would not go along with it.”
But Michael Toner, a former FEC chairman who is now co-chair of the election law practice at Wiley Rein, praised McGahn as a “forceful advocate” who “really was a driving force in shaping” the FEC’s post-Citizens United form.
“He served at a time when there were a lot of changes in the judicial landscape … and the FEC had to grapple with how to proceed, to be blunt," Toner said.
The FEC today, three years after McGahn’s departure, is known as a reluctant enforcer. The six commissioners, three backed by each political party, are frequently gridlocked and often at each other’s throats, and the agency is fighting low staff morale. Fines assessed by the agency fell from a high of $6.71 million in fiscal year 2006 to less than $1 million in 2015.
Just like his high-profile client, Trump, McGahn is an iconoclastic lightning rod, not known for backing away from a brawl or breaking bread with opponents afterwards.
“I would never have characterized him as a go-along, get-along guy,” said Ken Jones, a friend and former colleague of McGahn’s at the law firm Patton Boggs and a former lawyer for both the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000.
During McGahn’s tenure at the FEC, he was a frequent target for watchdog groups who said he was crippling the FEC’s ability to enforce the law and destroying morale among the agency’s staff through his reluctance to proceed with enforcement cases. Noble once described him as a commissioner who “did his best to make the FEC dysfunctional.”
The Trump campaign’s filings with the FEC show it has made more than $833,000 in payments to McGahn’s firm, Jones Day, since the campaign started.
March brought the firm’s highest bills yet — nearly $162,000. Last month, the Trump campaign brought on a second Jones Day partner, William McGinley, a colleague of McGahn’s in the political law practice, to help with its delegate operation.
McGahn’s portfolio with the Trump campaign clearly goes beyond basic advice on campaign finance.
McGahn beat back an attempt to strip Trump’s name from the critical New Hampshire ballot late last year, then stood behind the candidate on a stage in Manchester in February as Trump delivered his first victory speech of the campaign.
He raised concerns with the Nevada Republican Party after Trump’s then-rival for the nomination, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, suggested supporters record “anything that looks suspicious” when entering caucus sites in Nevada.
In a letter, McGahn said the Cruz campaign’s recommendation was “especially troubling given Senator Cruz and his campaign’s track record of election shenanigans,” and then went on to a series of bullet points highlighting accusations of dishonesty by the Cruz campaign.
McGahn’s letter asked the Nevada Republican Party to clarify whether the taping is permissible “and make clear that voter intimidation tactics will not be tolerated.”
McGahn has also written letters demanding that outside groups, including super PACs, stop raising money using Trump’s name and likeness.
In March, McGahn helped organize a meeting between Trump and Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.; Chris Collins, R-N.Y.; and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., as well as former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., at the Washington, D.C., offices of Jones Day.
Jones Day is, by some reports, the largest law firm in the country, with nearly 1,700 lawyers. This number includes roughly 250 lawyers in a D.C. office boasting sweeping views of the Capitol. It’s endured a series of reports about whether the attention Trump has drawn to the firm would prompt Jones Day to drop Trump as a client.
Not only has that not happened, the ties between the two appear to be solidifying, with McGinley also representing the billionaire businessman. The two lawyers traveled to Florida in April as part of a group representing Trump at a Republican National Committee meeting there.
In the end, though, no one knows exactly what advice McGahn is giving Trump — or whether his client is listening to it.
Former colleague Jones, while stressing that he isn’t familiar with the details of McGahn’s representation of Trump, said part of McGahn’s job is obviously dealing with the intricacies of arcane campaign finance law.
In addition, “part of Don’s job is to educate the candidate and the campaign as to what is a good position to take as the Republican front-runner” on money and politics, Jones said.
“Sometimes, the popular answer may not be the right answer. There’s a difference between making a sound bite about money and politics and truly understanding the interaction between money and politics and the federal government,” Jones added.
Brad Smith, a former FEC chairman who now leads the Center for Competitive Politics, a nonprofit that advocates for less campaign finance regulation, said: “Lawyers have to represent the interest of your client, but I think good lawyers also try to take on the old term of counselor and counsel their clients as to true long-term interest.”
McGahn has never been one to worry about the popular answer.
Whether he’ll be more willing to have his photograph associated with the Trump campaign than he was with the FEC remains to be seen.
This piece is published in partnership with The Center for Public Integrity.