Who is Donald F McGahn?

The role of White House Counsel was invented in the 1950s. For a modest salary of $176,461 its incumbent must keep the President on the straight and narrow (or not, as the case may be). No less than three previous office holders have served jail sentences (Erlichman, Colson and Dean after their respective stints in Nixon’s team). George W. Bush’s pick, Alberto Gonzalez, is meanwhile remembered mainly for his infamous torture memorandum.

Obama soberly picked a former Assistant US Attorney, W.Neil Eggleston, whose track record included prosecuting the corrupt Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich.

The next White House Counsel will have the tricky job of steering Donald Trump on a legal Presidential course despite his continued ownership of a complicated global fleet of business interests, licensing arrangements and property deals.   Last week Trump told the NY Times “the president can’t have a conflict of interest”.

He did not mean it was forbidden. He was claiming that a president’s financial interest can never constitute a conflict in law. He’s clearly been getting advice – but who from?

It looks very much like it’s Donald F. McGahn. On Friday it was announced that Trump had appointed him as White House Counsel. A keen libertarian, McGahn has advised a range of Republican politicians. He also served a three year term as Chair of the US Federal Election Commission. He reputedly changed it single handedly from an enforcement agency overseeing fair elections to a ‘non-enforcement agency’. In 2009, the year of McGahn’s appointment, the FEC imposed a total of 248 penalties for election breaches. By the following year that number had dropped to 34.

The choice is a telling one. If law enforcement is slipping down the agenda of the US President the ramifications for the rest of the world will be considerable.  It may look inconsistent with Trump’s pick for Attorney General, the hardliner Jeff Sessions. But it’s not really. The trick here is to pursue a very hard line but confine its operation to the narrowest criteria possible.

That way the occasional unlucky loser (often a foreign owned company like BP) gets the book thrown at it. The rest suffer no action at all.

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