President Trump announced Wednesday that White House Counsel Donald McGahn, who has been serving since the beginning of the administration in 2017, will step down in the coming weeks.
Though McGahn was an early supporter and advisor to Trump's campaign, tensions between the president and the attorney have been growing in recent months, especially as it became clear that McGahn could emerge as a significant witness in any obstruction of justice case against the president.
The New York Times reported recently that McGahn had spent 30 hours with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the probe into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russians and whether Trump intervened to obstruct that investigation.
According to the report, McGahn's cooperation with the special counsel was driven by a concern that the president, who initially authorized all of his associates to speak with investigators, might have been setting him up to take the blame for possible wrongdoing in a potential obstruction of justice case. Trump responded to the report by tweeting last week that he "allowed" McGahn to speak to Mueller.
During an event at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Trump told reporters that he had no concerns about what McGahn told Mueller.
"I have a lot of affection for Don," Trump said. "He's done an excellent job."
But Trump, who has sometimes struggled to comprehend or accept that government officials are not tasked with defending his personal interests, privately has lashed out at McGahn on several occasions.
He blamed McGahn for not preventing Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Mueller probe last year, and demanded last summer that McGahn fire Mueller. McGahn reportedly threatened to resign rather than carry out the order and the president relented.
McGahn, who was the general counsel for Trump's campaign, has focused much of his efforts as White House counsel on the appointment of conservative judges to the nation's top courts and to cutting federal regulations, both of which have endeared him to Republicans in Congress.
Following Trump's tweet Wednesday about McGahn's departure, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) expressed his displeasure in a tweet of his own.
"@realDonaldTrump I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving WhiteHouse Counsel. U can't let that happen," Grassley wrote.
Grassley's acknowledgement of ignorance was unusual. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, typically he would be informed by the administration, especially one of the same party, about such a significant change at the White House counsel office.
Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has worked closely with McGahn to put a conservative stamp on the federal judiciary, issued a statement saying that if it's true he's leaving the White House, that is "sad news for our country." McConnell, who came to the Senate 33 years ago, called McGahn "the most impressive White House counsel during my time in Washington."
Trump's announcement came just hours after the website Axios reported that McGahn would leave some time this fall, and shortly after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she had "no announcements to make at this time."
The president took matters into his own hands with his tweet hours after he began the day by urging his Twitter followers not to believe any anonymously sourced news reports. The Axios report he later confirmed was based on anonymous White House sources.
Veteran attorney Emmet Flood, who joined the White House legal team earlier this year, is the likeliest replacement for McGahn, according to two administration sources, who cautioned that no final decision has been made.
Flood was a special counsel to President George W. Bush and previously advised President Clinton during the impeachment investigation in the late 1990s.
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12:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from President Trump on Wednesday.
10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with Sen. Mitch McConnell's statement and additional details.
8:55 a.m.: This article was updated with Sen. Charles E. Grassley's comments and other background.