Atlantic City-area native Don McGahn, 50, whose refusal to push for the firing of Robert Mueller is detailed in the special counsel’s report on the Russia investigation, is brilliant, laid back and quiet, says one family friend.
And he’s a rock guitarist.
“That’s a side of him that doesn’t come out much,” said WOND radio host Don Williams, who is a friend of the McGahn family, referring to his guitar skills. “I’ve never seen him smile, but his mother says, ‘Oh, he smiles once in a while.’”
McGahn refused to help the president discredit Mueller, and in June 2017 refused to move to have Mueller fired, according to the report. McGahn is mentioned in the report 72 times, according to news outlets that have combed through its more than 400 pages.
Mueller described McGahn in his report as a credible witness with no motive to lie who had a “clear recollection” of events. Mueller used phone records and written notes of McGahn and his chief of staff to support his narrative.
McGahn is a graduate of Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, and his parents, Donald Sr. and Noreen, live in Brigantine.
Don McGahn served as White House counsel from January 2017 to October 2018. McGahn previously was chairman of the Federal Election Commission and has worked for the law firm Jones Day and for President Donald Trump’s campaign.
He helped the president remake the federal judiciary with conservative and young judges, worked with Trump on the selection of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and oversaw a rollback of Obama-era regulations.
Williams cautioned against tying McGahn’s resignation from the White House to Trump’s demand he intercede to fire Mueller.
McGahn didn’t leave for more than a year after that refusal.
“It is well known that Trump had asked him to fire Mueller, and McGahn said no,” said Williams. “Yet they stayed together and Trump didn’t fire him. They worked together on other things.”
On June 17, 2017, McGahn was at home when he received a call from Trump, who was at Camp David, directing him to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to remove Mueller. After the call, McGahn decided to quit because he didn’t want to “participate in events that he described as akin to the Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to the 1973 Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned after being ordered to fire special counsel Archibald Cox.
McGahn went as far as calling his lawyer, driving to the White House and packing up his office. McGahn told then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that Trump had asked him to “do crazy sh--” and that he was leaving.
McGahn was urged by Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon to stay on. He did, and showed up for work the following Monday.
Ed Kline, of Kline Construction in Galloway Township, is also a friend of the McGahns and knows Trump as well.
“You have to understand Trump shoots from the hip. You never know what he’s going to say,” said Kline. “He says, ‘Take care of this,’ then you get a call from someone who says, ‘Don’t listen to him.’ That’s the way Trump rolls, and McGahn knows that.”
Longtime Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough was a friend of Don’s uncle Pat “Paddy” McGahn, a Democrat power broker in South Jersey who was once Trump’s attorney on Atlantic City casino projects.
“I would say the president is fortunate to have had an attorney like Don McGahn,” said McCullough. “He not only protected the president, his client ... but he also did the right things as an honorable man.”
Paddy McGahn introduced Don McGahn to Williams as one of the most brilliant men he would ever meet.
“I never thought when I shook hands with that young man, one day he’d be the top counsel for the president,” said Williams.
Paddy McGahn was a Democrat, while Don’s dad, Donald, was a Republican, like his son, said Williams.
“The funny thing is Donald Trump and Pat didn’t get along. Pat was (Trump’s) attorney for a while, and they had a falling out,” said Williams. “If he were around, he would love (current politics). He loved good arguments and tough situations. He was one of the old, tough Marines.”
Pat McGahn died at age 72 in 2000.
Although McGahn is a serious-minded attorney, he does have a good sense of humor, which was evident in a speech he gave in January to the Federalist Society’s annual Western Chapter Conference, covered by C-Span.
The Federalist Society is a conservative group that recommended lists of nominees to the Trump administration to fill Supreme Court and federal judiciary vacancies.
He shared stories of being mistaken for Sean Spicer in airports and at social gatherings.
“Now, all Irishmen don’t look alike,” he said. “But I occasionally get called Brett Kavanaugh, which is kind of cool because people think I’m a Supreme Court justice.”
While he’s not and never will be, McGahn said, “I’ve had something to do with helping President Trump pick two great justices.”
The Associated Press and Bloomberg contributed to this report.