- In a new book, David Enrich takes a deep dive into the 127-year-old law firm Jones Day.
- Donald McGahn, a partner at Jones Day, left the firm to serve as Trump’s White House counsel.
- The following is an excerpt from the book, in which McGahn meets Donald Trump for the first time.
In February 2015, Don McGahn arrived at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. McGahn was a star lawyer in conservative circles; he had spent years representing a who’s who of Republican politicians and causes. His crowning achievement had been several years on the Federal Election Commission, where, to the delight of GOP lawmakers, McGahn helped water down campaign-spending regulations and slowed the agency’s rulemaking to a crawl.
These days McGahn was a partner at the international law firm Jones Day, part of a new team devoted to helping Republicans win elections and stay out of trouble. Trump, who was preparing to launch a bare-bones presidential campaign, was trying to bolster his credibility among conservative voters.
That was why McGahn was at Trump Tower
The lawyer rode a golden elevator up to the twenty-sixth floor and was led into Trump’s office. Trump was sitting behind his cluttered desk. After what seemed like an hour of small talk, Trump got to the point. What do you charge? he asked.
“My hourly rate is $800,” McGahn replied.
“No shit,” Trump exclaimed. “Good for you.”
Later that month, Trump began taking steps to show that his easy-to-dismiss candidacy was for real. To underscore his seriousness, he mentioned that he had hired McGahn. “I’m not doing this for enjoyment,” Trump said. “I’m doing this because the country is in serious trouble.” (In perhaps a more telling sign of his seriousness, Trump also noted that he was holding off on another season of Celebrity Apprentice, his NBC reality show.)
One day in the spring of 2015, McGahn took a Jones Day associate over to Trump Tower. The associate was eager to soak up campaign experience, and McGahn figured the fledgling Trump campaign would be an interesting experience for the young lawyer. The associate would get a firsthand glimpse of how some no-frills campaigns functioned. Also, unlike those with professionally run outfits, the Trump folks wouldn’t mind a random lawyer showing up. “I can’t take you to Rick Perry’s campaign, because they’re serious,” McGahn told his colleague.
The meeting was with Cory Lewandowski, who was the campaign’s manager, and Alan Garten, a longtime Trump Organization executive. After sandwiches at the Trump Grill in the building’s lobby, the men moved upstairs to the nerve center of the Trump Organization. They sat in Lewandowski’s little office, down the hall from Trump’s large one.
The meeting was completely unstructured
Lewandowski showed off the campaign’s new letterhead, and he asked for the lawyers’ input on their talking points on issues like abortion (Trump had previously been pro-choice).
Toward the end of the meeting, Lewandowski asked about how to account for the campaign’s use of Trump’s private jet. The campaign would have to reimburse Trump for flights; was it okay if they just guessed how much each trip cost? McGahn patiently informed them that, no, they could not just guess, there were rules about this, and they needed to be followed.
“These guys are morons,” McGahn told the associate afterward. (McGahn disputed the quotes attributed to him, in particular the word “moron.” “I certainly have some go-to phrases, but that is not one of them,” he said. He added that “many of the folks I met in New York were quite sharp and impressive in their chosen fields—though many of them had little or no political experience.”)
On April 23, 2015, a check for $6,451.38 arrived at Jones Day. It was the first payment from the Trump campaign. McGahn and his colleagues hadn’t done much work for Trump yet, but it was time for him to start paying.
Trump’s reputation for shortchanging his lawyers (and banks and contractors and customers) was well-known. Trump had tried to wriggle out of what he owed one attorney after another, ranging from solo practitioners to partners at big firms.
Back in the 1990s, a lawyer at a white-shoe firm had done some work for Trump.
The bill came to about $2 million, and Trump refused to pay
After a while, the lawyer lost patience, and he showed up, unannounced, at Trump Tower. Someone sent him up to Trump’s office. Trump was initially pleased to see him—he didn’t betray any sense of sheepishness—but the lawyer was steaming. “I’m incredibly disappointed,” he scolded Trump. “There’s no reason you haven’t paid us.”
Trump made some apologetic noises. Then he said: “I’m not going to pay your bill. I’m going to give you something more valuable.” What on earth is he talking about? the lawyer wondered. “I have a stallion,” Trump continued. “It’s worth $5 million.” Trump rummaged around in a filing cabinet and pulled out what he said was a deed to a horse. He handed it to the lawyer.
“This isn’t the 1800s,” the lawyer stammered once he regained the capacity for speech. “You can’t pay me with a horse.” After the lawyer threatened to sue, Trump eventually coughed up at least a portion of what he owed.
Jones Day, too, wanted to be paid with money. So a decision was made that Trump would pay a regular retainer. In addition, there would be a strict schedule for disbursing any other fees or reimbursements. (McGahn said there was not an unusual payment schedule. “The Trump campaign was billed in regular order and paid regularly,” he told me.)
Even after that timetable was established, Jones Day lawyers—including some working for the Trump campaign—doubted it would hold
“We figured he wouldn’t pay, and that would be the end of it,” one told me. But against all odds, Trump paid and paid again. Within a few months, he’d forked over tens of thousands of dollars—including more than $29,000 on June 16.
That same day, McGahn was back at Trump Tower. He stood on the mezzanine level of the lobby as Donald and Melania Trump descended on an escalator to a makeshift, flag-studded stage, where Trump formally launched his candidacy. McGahn watched the small crowd go nuts. Then he listened as his client laced into immigrants and the Beltway establishment. Outside, storm clouds gathered, and a light rain began to fall.
Editor’s note: Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for former President Donald Trump, provided this statement: “The media’s obsession with amplifying false attacks and fake news against President Trump is embarrassing, yet the reality is President Trump is stronger today than ever before and he will continue to advance his America First agenda through the Midterms and beyond.”
Excerpted from the book SERVANTS OF THE DAMNED: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice by David Enrich. Copyright © 2022 by David Enrich. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
David Enrich is the Business Investigations Editor at The New York Times and the #1 bestselling author of “Dark Towers”. His new book “Servants of the Damned” is now on sale.