WASHINGTON — All those times Donald Trump railed about the secretive “deep state” trying to undermine his presidency, he might have tried checking upstairs and down the hall.
That was the location of the West Wing office of former White House chief lawyer Don McGahn, who, according to the report issued last week by special counsel Robert Mueller, repeatedly thwarted Trump by failing to comply with his boss’ orders to block the Russia investigation and then cover up his attempts to do so.
And in so doing, McGahn and a number of his White House colleagues joined the long list of bureaucrats, top agency officials and Republican lawmakers who have settled on one simple trick for dealing with Trump’s illegal, unethical or simply unwelcome demands: ignoring them, knowing that Trump is likely to forget and move on.
“As always with Trump, you have to figure out when to take it seriously,” said one former top Republican National Committee member on condition of anonymity. “This guy brings out more of that from more people in more situations than anybody possibly could.”
McGahn, according to the report, eventually had face-to-face confrontations with Trump, in which he actively refused his orders, rather than just passively ignoring them as others had.
“The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mueller wrote.
Declining to carry out Trump’s orders is something lots of Republicans have been doing, pretty much since he got elected — and particularly among GOP congressional leadership.
“While open confrontation with the president is undesirable and ineffective, his short attention span and tendency to distraction allowed leaders to simply ignore legislative action on large swaths of Trump’s agenda,” said Michael Steel, once a top aide to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
A ‘Subversive’ Aide
Unlike some executive agency employees who defy or slow-walk Trump directives because they disagree with his “America First” nationalist agenda and are admired by liberals, though, McGahn is more likely to be seen as a hero by conservatives.
Among his major roles at the White House was to shepherd names of judges pre-screened by the conservative Federalist Society into appointments for open judgeships at the trial and appellate levels.
The machine-like fashion those district and circuit court vacancies have been filled stands in marked contrast to the hundreds of high-level positions in executive branch agencies that remain unfilled, largely because so many qualified candidates do not want to work for Trump.
Indeed, the filling of those judgeships is cited by many conservatives as one of the major reasons for supporting Trump, along with his willingness to sign tax cut legislation and aggressively repeal consumer, labor and environmental regulations.
That work, nevertheless, is not enough in the minds of some Trump loyalists to undo the damage he may have done by detailing his conversations with the president to Mueller’s investigators ― conversations which now are fodder for Democrats who control the House.
One informal adviser to the president said on condition of anonymity that McGahn was among the most “subversive” of Trump’s top aides. “I think it was unconscionable that he testified and gave everything over to the prosecutors,” the adviser said.
And, in the case of McGahn, his motive for refusing Trump’s orders might not have been entirely altruistic, said one conservative scholar who in recent years has become quite critical of the Republican Party.
“I think it was naked self preservation,” said Norman Ornstein, with the American Enterprise Institute. “An understanding that if he did what Trump asked he would end up in the slammer himself.”
Checking Trump’s Impulses
That executive branch employees, from civil servants right up to Cabinet members, have been working to check Trump’s frequently uninformed impulses has been known almost from his first days in office.
A summary of Trump’s closed-door Oval Office conversations with top Russian diplomats the day after he fired former FBI director James Comey was leaked to The New York Times, giving Americans an insight into his relationship with the country that helped him win the presidency.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, months after his eventual firing by tweet, told a Houston audience that he repeatedly had to tell Trump that his ideas were illegal.
“So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law,’” Tillerson said.
After Trump visited a brand-new aircraft carrier a few months into his presidency, he summarily demanded that it and all similar vessels be retrofitted with steam-powered catapults — a demand that would have required a total redesign costing billions of dollars. Navy officials simply ignored him.
The Air Force, similarly, slow-walked Trump’s demands for a new branch of the military to be called “Space Force,” even though the Air Force has operated a Space Command since 1982. And although his campaign claimed months ago it would start selling “Space Force”-branded merchandise, it is unclear whether Trump even today knows about the Air Force’s longstanding space mission.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, in fact, may have been the Trump administration official who stood up to Trump’s most consequential demands, including pulling out of South Korea and Afghanistan, using torture and, reportedly, an order to assassinate Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Business As Usual
The Washington Republicans who have set the standard for ignoring Trump, though, have been those two miles up Pennsylvania Avenue in the Capitol.
GOP leaders, who had full control of Congress during Trump’s first two years, in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency slammed through a series of bills undoing regulations implemented toward the end of the Obama Administration. They went on to push — unsuccessfully — to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and then passed a massive tax cut package that slashed the corporate income tax rate.
In other words, GOP leadership passed the agenda items it would have focused on regardless of which Republican president had been elected in 2016.
“That’s fair,” agreed a top GOP aide on condition of anonymity. “I think any Republican administration would have done same thing.”
The flip side of that is Republicans’ failure to pass — or even to show any interest in trying to pass — legislation that was unique to Trump’s “America First” agenda. Republican congressional leaders never tried to push through a bill authorizing Trump’s promised border wall. Or implementing his “Muslim ban.” Or restricting legal immigration. Or withdrawing from NATO.
Steel, the former Boehner aide, said the Trump team did not seem to understand how Congress worked.
“They seemed to have the impression that through some combination of executive action and stamping their feet, they could get what they wanted. And obviously they couldn’t,” he said.
Rory Cooper, a GOP consultant and once a senior aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said Trump’s White House actually made it relatively easy for Republicans not to move on a Trump-specific agenda by failing to make formal requests for much of it.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of saying no to him because there’s not a lot of things he’s asking for that they won’t do,” Cooper said, adding that for things like immigration or the border wall, Republicans simply lacked the needed votes. “If there had been the votes in the House and the Senate for wall funding, they would have given it to him.”