President Donald Trump’s pick to fill the job of White House counsel is an indication the White House is preparing for possible post-election legal brawls with Democrats over everything from the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to possible impeachment if Democrats take over the House of Representatives.
Pat Cipollone is taking over an office formerly led by Don McGahn, whose last day at the White House was Wednesday. While McGahn was planning on leaving the White House, his departure was expedited by Trump’s Tuesday announcement of Cipollone’s appointment, sources say.
Should Democrats take over the House, the President’s lawyers expect a flood of new oversight investigations of executive branch agencies, which the GOP-controlled Congress has largely avoided. Democrats are also expected to try to get access to materials from the Mueller investigation, which the President’s lawyers argue should be protected by executive privilege. The President and his lawyers have also raised the likelihood of an impeachment battle, even though Democratic leaders have tried to avoid discussing the issue.
Cipollone’s arrival marks an important change for the President because it means he will have a White House counsel who isn’t sidelined by conflicts as a result of being a witness in the Mueller investigation.
McGahn and others in his office have provided interviews to Mueller as part of the investigation into whether the President tried to obstruct the inquiry. As a result, the President had to bring on Emmet Flood as his own special counsel to handle Mueller interactions on behalf of the President’s office. The relationship between Trump and McGahn was further damaged when McGahn’s clashes with the President became public knowledge in news reports.
Cipollone is leaving his partnership at the Washington law firm Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner to take the White House job. But behind the scenes in recent months, he was already working as an outside adviser to the President’s legal team, becoming something of a Trump whisperer, sources close to the President’s legal team say.
“He’s developed a relationship with the President,” one person close to the Trump legal team told CNN. “He knows how to talk to (Trump) and … that’s important.”
Cipollone is a seasoned litigator and former Justice Department official who served during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, but he lacks extensive experience dealing with congressional investigations. The President and his legal team think that’s not going to be a problem in part because Flood plans to remain in his post to help manage those interactions, according to people briefed on the matter.
The President’s legal team thinks Cipollone will make a good team with Flood “should things take a nasty turn in November,” a person close to Trump’s legal team said. Cipollone’s Washington skills work well, the source said, with other members of the team led in part by Jane and Marty Raskin, Florida-based lawyers who have been leading day-to-day negotiations with the Mueller team.
“He blends the legal and the political very well,” the source close to the President’s legal team said.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the President, said that after working with Cipollone over the past several months he’s “confident he will build a solid team in the White House Counsel’s Office.”
Former Obama White House counsel Neil Eggleston, who previously worked with Cipollone, said Cipollone is a “solid litigator used to high stakes litigation. He’s got the right temperament for the job.”
Eggleston said the key for Cipollone is to surround himself with top deputies who have the skills he doesn’t, adding, “I don’t worry he’s going to do that.”
Cipollone is expected to join the White House in the next two weeks, but he’s already gotten a small taste of the unusually unscripted nature of the Trump presidency.
Trump made his announcement of Cipollone in an Associated Press interview on Tuesday, which came as a surprise even to Cipollone and others in the President’s legal team and the White House. While he knew he had the job, the sudden announcement wasn’t part of a planned rollout as usually happens with significant personnel announcements in the White House.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately describe Democrats’ expected efforts to access Mueller investigation materials.