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Publisher’s note: Jones Day is a subscriber to NPR and has worked for NPR in the past.
While campaigning for president in 2016, Donald Trump portrayed himself as an outsider from Washington, someone who “drain the swamp“of special interests and cronyism. But New York Times Journalist David Enrich points out that both the Trump candidacy and his administration were shaped, in large part, by Jones Day, one of the most politically connected law firms in DC.
For much of Jones Day’s history, it was a giant in the field of corporate litigation, collecting billions a year in fees from tobacco, opioid, gun, and oil companies, among many other giant corporations. But, as Enrich writes in his book, Servants of the Damned, the firm was particularly mired in politics during the Trump administration.
“They were more integrated into the Trump administration than any law firm you can think of in any previous presidential administration,” says Enrich. “Throughout the White House and the Justice Department, as well as other agencies, basically everywhere you looked, you would find a Jones Day attorney who once was and who will be a future.”
Enrich notes that Don McGahn, a prominent Jones Day attorney, left the firm to become Trump’s White House counsel. McGahn took on the responsibility of choosing the judges that Trump would nominate for the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
“One of the basic tenets of McGahn’s judicial philosophy was this very antipathy toward what he derisively calls ‘the administrative state,’” says Enrich. “And one of the biggest results of that is that it translates into judges no longer giving as much deference to the rights and authority of federal agencies as had been the norm.”
Enrich says Jones Day attorneys went back and forth between the Trump administration and private practice, where they returned to representing corporate clients, in some cases with interests before the Trump administration.
“The notion that this outsider trying to shake things up would turn to a firm like Jones Day to be part of their administration and help elect their judges and things like that is really antithetical,” says Enrich. “When I think of the swamp and I think of when Trump thinks of the swamp, there are few things more swampy than that kind of internal baseball lobbying.”
On the outsized role Jones Day played in the Trump administration
Starting in 2015, the law firm represented their campaign, and they did that through the 2016 cycle and then again the 2020 campaign, that was work that basically started on Inauguration Day 2017. And so they were up front and at the center of his two presidential elections. campaigns, but did not represent him personally. …
White House Counsel Don McGahn was a highly prominent Jones Day attorney, and he surrounded himself in the White House with several high-ranking Jones Day associates and associates whom he brought with him. At the Justice Department, Attorney General Noel Francisco was once and future partner of Jones Day. And in the upper echelons of both in the civil division of the Justice Department, some of the people just below the attorney general were from Jones Day. You had someone at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Commerce, the list goes on.
On Jones Day achieving political interests once Trump was in office
Shortly after Trump became president, Jones Day attorneys, both inside and outside the administration, those still at the firm, began to accomplish things they had long sought but been unable to do. And the clearest example of this for me is a series of lawsuits that Jones Day filed on behalf of a group of Catholic organizations that were essentially challenging an important provision of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. … One of the first things [the Trump] What the administration is doing with the help of Don McGahn, is basically saying that they are going to end an Obama administration policy that sought to require employers to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, which was part of Obamacare. And this was the object of the lawsuit. For starters, it was a big win for Jones Day and his clients.
On the political agenda of Jones Day
The law firm is not a monolith, and I think it’s important to say that up front. And this is a law firm that has something like 2,500 lawyers in dozens of countries around the world. And like any big organization or big law firm, there are employees and lawyers at Jones Day who have, I think, a wide range of political views from the far left to the far right. What sets Jones apart is the degree to which the company’s leadership is fairly uniform in its conservative thinking. …
His agenda… ranged from a lot of deregulation and really getting government out of business a lot, and then also an agenda of what I think the right people on the right would call “religious freedom.” And I think people on the left and, to some extent, people on the center would say a lot about the dramatic erosion of the separation of church and state in a way that allows religion to play a much more prominent role in public life. and politics.
On How Don McGahn, Former Jones Day Attorney, Ended Up Picking SCOTUS Nominees For Trump
Shortly after Trump’s election, Mitch McConnell gave Don McGahn some advice. The advice was that instead of relying on a committee in the White House to debate and choose candidates for the Supreme Court and other federal courts, McConnell’s advice was: “Look, you have to get Trump’s permission to do this alone. You should only have the power to choose the judges that Trump will nominate.” McGahn liked the sound of that. He pitched it to Trump, and when Trump offered McGahn the job of White House counsel, Trump immediately agreed. And then McGahn, very quickly, even before Trump was sworn in as president, he was suddenly sitting in this enormous power that was really quite unusual historically. And he was the one who would pick the people that Trump nominated to all kinds of federal courts.
On McGahn returning to Jones Day after working in the Trump administration
He came right back, got a big promotion, got a lot more money. And it was like the first in what would become a whole parade of people who went from the Trump administration to the law firm. Many of them were people who had started with Jones Day, then gone to the Trump administration, then come back. But there were also a lot of people who hadn’t worked at Jones Day before, maybe at other law firms. And with McGahn’s return, Jones Day essentially became a haven for veterans of the Trump administration, many of whom had developed some pretty controversial backstories and taken some pretty controversial, polarizing, and legally dubious actions while in the administration. Trump and therefore, I think, were pretty radioactive to a lot of other big law firms. But Jones Day welcomed many of them with open arms.
On Jones Day taking advantage of the judicial revolution that launched
Now he’s bringing cases through the Supreme Court and the lower courts that were basically made possible by this flood of very conservative federal judges who are now sitting on the benches of many courts. So just in the previous Supreme Court tenure, which was obviously one of the most sweeping and far-reaching Supreme Court terms, certainly of my lifetime, and Jones Day played a pivotal role in some of these cases. And I think the biggest was the case, the West Virginia vs. EPA case that dramatically limited the EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions. And that was filed on behalf of Jones Day’s client, a large coal company.
Jones Day was the law firm that basically ended the eviction moratorium during the pandemic that the Biden administration had imposed. And Jones Day, just reading the tea leaves and talking to their lawyers now, it’s pretty clear that they’re plotting a wide range of attacks on the power of the federal government to oversee private businesses and private companies in a way that goes back to Don The hatred of McGahn and his colleagues to the so-called administrative state. And now they are in a position to be able to defend those positions much more strongly and be successful in defending them, thanks to all the justices that Trump, under the direction of McGahn and with the support of McConnell, managed to get to practically every court. federals. in the country.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.