WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, will be leaving his post this fall, effectively forcing the long-anticipated exit of a top adviser who has cooperated extensively in the investigation into Russian election interference.
The president made the declaration on Twitter without first informing McGahn, according to people close to both men. It came 11 days after The New York Times reported the degree to which McGahn -- who was by Trump's side at major moments as the president sought to keep control over the Russia inquiry -- has emerged as a key witness in the investigation. McGahn has cooperated extensively with prosecutors, who are scrutinizing whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation.
In addition to stripping the White House of another top official and one of the few senior advisers who has been willing to push back against Trump, McGahn's departure stands to fuel concerns about how the president has interacted with witnesses and potential witnesses in the Russia investigation.
In his tweet Wednesday morning, Trump said McGahn will leave this fall after the Senate votes on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.
"I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service!" Trump said in the Twitter post.
McGahn, a top election lawyer who served as general counsel on Trump's campaign, has played a pivotal role in the president's remaking of the federal judiciary with young, conservative judges.
He also helped guide Trump's selection of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the president's nomination of Kavanaugh, and helped oversee a dramatic rollback of regulations enacted under President Barack Obama.
But the relationship between the president and McGahn has been rocky since McGahn failed to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself a year ago from the Justice Department's Russia investigation. At the time, Trump exploded at McGahn and said he needed an attorney general who would protect him.
When Trump announced McGahn's appointment in November 2016, he cited the attorney's "brilliant legal mind, excellent character and a deep understanding of constitutional law."
But McGahn quickly clashed with the president over the Russia investigation.
McGahn, an avowed defender of executive powers, broke with some members of Trump's legal team as he encouraged a less-cooperative stance toward special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, believing it could constrain future presidents.
As members of Trump's legal team looked into potential conflicts of interest involving Mueller, Trump directed McGahn to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to raise the perceived conflicts and push for Mueller's ouster, a person familiar with the matter said at the time.
McGahn put off making the call because he disagreed with the strategy, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
When the president persisted in pressing the issue, McGahn told other senior White House officials that he would resign if Trump didn't back off. Trump let the matter drop, the person said. The president later denounced the reports as "fake news."
McGahn's departure has been rumored for months, and he had told Trump earlier this year that he planned to step down soon but had not settled on a date. At the time, Trump told McGahn that he was reluctant to let him go. But the two men have not discussed the matter recently.
The president's tweet was precipitated by a report on the Axios website that McGahn planned to leave after Kavanaugh's confirmation process concluded. Trump had grown tired of seeing reports that McGahn might leave, according to people familiar with his thinking and decided to take away any wiggle room he might have.
But McGahn, who had been a frequent target of Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, believed the story was planted by his critics to force the president's hand and hasten the timeline of announcing his departure.
Ivanka Trump complained to her father about the Times report this month, which detailed how some in the White House were unaware of the extent of McGahn's cooperation with Mueller, according to a person briefed on the discussion.
Trump said McGahn's departure had nothing to do with his interviews with the special counsel.
Pressed by reporters, Trump said he had approved the attorney's interviews and said he had nothing to fear about what his counsel had told Mueller, even as he appeared to confirm that he was not completely aware what that was.
"I don't have to be aware," Trump said. "We do everything straight. We do everything by the book. And Don is an excellent guy."
Trump often blamed McGahn for the cloud the special counsel's investigation had cast over the White House. He said McGahn should have done more to stop Sessions from recusing himself from the investigation, the decision Trump believes allowed Mueller to be appointed in May 2017.
Still, despite his reputation for being willing to tell Trump no, there was one major event McGahn could not stop: the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. After failing to persuade Trump not to dismiss Comey, McGahn worked with Sessions and Rosenstein to come up with a rationale for the dismissal. Eight days after Comey was fired, Mueller was appointed as the special counsel.
McGahn, who was the top lawyer for the Trump campaign, also forged a strong bond with Republican congressional leaders. He had considered resigning repeatedly, according to people who have spoken with him, but stayed on in part at the urging of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, and to execute a strategy he spearheaded to appoint conservative judges. McGahn is also loyal to Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly.
McGahn had tried to lay the groundwork for his resignation, persuading Trump to hire Emmet Flood -- who represented Bill Clinton in impeachment proceedings -- as the lead White House lawyer dealing with the special counsel inquiry, to position Flood to then succeed him, according to people close to the discussions.
Asked about Flood, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "People like him. He's super well-respected around the building. But there's not a plan locked in place at this point."
Still, some Republicans reacted to the news of McGahn's exit with alarm.
McConnell hailed McGahn as the "most impressive White House counsel during my time in Washington." He called the departure "sad news for our country."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tweeted after the president's announcement: "I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving White House Counsel. U can't let that happen."
But some members of conservative legal circles in which McGahn has worked suggested that he had grown frustrated with serving as the top lawyer in a White House that has drawn more than the usual share of legal scrutiny.
George Conway, who withdrew last year as Trump's choice for a top post in the Justice Department and is Kellyanne Conway's husband, responded to Grassley by tweeting, "remember the eighth amendment, senator." It was a reference to the prohibition in the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.
McGahn was interviewed several times by Mueller's investigators, disclosing to them several details about episodes like the abrupt firing in May 2017 of Comey.
Information for this article was contributed by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times; and by Ken Thomas, Zeke Miller and Eric Tucker of The Associated Press.
A Section on 08/30/2018
Print Headline: McGahn to leave, Trump tweets