Donald Trump names White House counsel as conflicts of interest loom

As White House counsel, Donald F McGahn will help Donald Trump navigate a web of business interests that stand as potential conflicts to his incoming administration


Donald Trump said his oldest children—Donald Junior, Eric and Ivanka—will take over the management of his businesses when he takes over the presidency. Photo: AP
Donald Trump said his oldest children—Donald Junior, Eric and Ivanka—will take over the management of his businesses when he takes over the presidency. Photo: AP

Washinton: Donald Trump named Donald F. McGahn as White House counsel, selecting a seasoned political lawyer who could help navigate the growing scrutiny on potential conflicts of interest between the president-elect’s businesses and his incoming administration.

McGahn, a partner at the Jones Day law firm in Washington and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, had served as an adviser to Trump’s campaign. His specialties include government ethics, the president-elect’s transition team said in a statement Friday announcing his selection.

“Don has a brilliant legal mind, excellent character and a deep understanding of constitutional law,” Trump said in the statement. “He will play a critical role in our administration.”

Even before Trump is sworn in as president on 20 January, McGahn will be tasked with helping the real-estate developer navigate an extensive web of business ties and commercial interests that stand as potential conflicts of interest. Trump’s licensing deals and other businesses have drawn renewed scrutiny since he was elected president on 8 November, yet he said this week in an interview with the New York Times that as a sitting US president, he “can’t have a conflict of interest.”

Executive orders

The White House counsel is also responsible for preparing executive orders issued by the president, ensuring that they are constitutional. Trump has pledged to rescind many of President Barack Obama’s orders, saying they exceeded his powers, while vowing to issue his own on issues such as restricting immigration from countries compromised by Islamic terrorists.

Trump is in Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday. Transition officials said on a conference call Friday that he’ll meet in New York on 28 November with former BB&T Corp. chief executive officer John Allison, who’s said to be a contender for treasury secretary, and with former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Paul Atkins.

In addition to McGahn’s selection, the transition team announced that Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland was named deputy national security adviser. Neither of the two positions filled on Friday requires confirmation by the Senate.

McFarland, 65, has a long record of national security experience, serving as deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the early 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. McFarland also has worked as a national security analyst and a contributor to Fox News. She ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the US Senate in New York in 2006.

Obama critic

“I am proud that KT has once again decided to serve our country and join my national security team,” Trump said in a statement. “She has tremendous experience and innate talent that will complement the fantastic team we are assembling, which is crucial because nothing is more important than keeping our people safe.”

McFarland would report to retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was named Trump’s national security adviser last week. She has praised Trump for his instincts, saying they make up for his lack of experience in government and national security.

“Foreign policy, national security, defense is not the president-elect’s skill,” she said last week on Fox News. “He didn’t come into the job with a lot of experience and background in it but in talking about the issues, he gets right to the core.”

McFarland worked as an aide to then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. She helped write a groundbreaking speech in 1984 by then-defense secretary Caspar Weinberger that described US policy on use of military force under Reagan and later became known as the Weinberger Doctrine.

In recent years, she has been critical of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy, accusing the president of a weak approach to terrorism and other global threats.

“The alternative to American leadership in the world is not some kumbaya world peace, global world order, like Obama says,” she said last year on the Fox Business Network. “It’s chaos, or it’s dictatorship.”

Praise for Putin

In 2013, after Obama opted against a military strike against the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpiles, McFarland wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved the credit for using diplomacy to stave off the attack. In a deal between the US, Russia and the Syrian government, chemical material was shipped out of Syria in 2014.

“The world knows that Vladimir Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize,” she wrote on FoxNews.com in September of 2013. “It turns out that leading from behind left a big opening up front. Putin stepped right in. And Obama still hasn’t figured it out.”

After extremists in Paris killed 130 people last January, McFarland called for stricter counterterrorism policies in the US, including “terrorist profiling.”

“We need to take a different approach to fighting terrorism than the one-size-fits-all, politically correct policy we have had in place for over a decade,” she wrote on FoxNews.com last year.

McGahn at FEC

McGahn served as a member of the Federal Election Commission, charged with overseeing the nation’s election laws, from 2008 to 2013. Those laws underwent dramatic changes after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on political speech. That resulted in groups known as super-PACs raising millions from deep-pocketed donors.

McGahn oversaw a major rewrite of the FEC’s procedures, which he has said brought unprecedented transparency and due process to the agency. Critics say that instead he placed too much power in the hands of the often deadlocked commissioners—there are six, three from each party, who often split on partisan lines -- while hamstringing its career staff, limiting its effectiveness.

“McGahn ran a one-man agency nullification program,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog. “He rejected core parts of the FEC’s enforcement mandate and successfully employed obstructionism over good faith negotiations with his fellow commissioners.”

Before his stint at the FEC, McGahn served as general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party committee for GOP House members, for almost a decade.

On the conflict questions McGahn will face at the White House, Trump told the Times that he was in the process of extricating himself from his business relationships, and would have his oldest children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, take over the management of his businesses. Yet the interview, in which Trump said he was surprised to learn there were no laws requiring him to transfer assets to a blind trust, raised more questions over how he’ll handle his business empire after taking office.

Recent media reports singled out the president-elect’s links to a Philippine developer who has been appointed that nation’s envoy to the US; disclosed that Trump took a break from transition planning to meet with three business partners building Trump-branded towers in India; and said that Ivanka Trump sat in on a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Bloomberg

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