President-elect Donald Trump on Friday selected Donald McGahn, his chief campaign attorney, to join him in the White House as his top lawyer, sliding the longtime election-law expert into what promises to be a high-profile job with unique challenges in the next administration.
Mr. McGahn, 48 years old, has been a partner since 2013 at the Jones Day law firm, where he has focused mostly on political law. He first met with Mr. Trump in 2014 as the New York businessman was exploring a potential presidential campaign.
A Republican since college, the younger Mr. McGahn quickly gravitated to the GOP as a lawyer. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush launched his presidential campaign in 1999, it was Mr. McGahn who filed the paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
He served as the in-house counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, until President Bush appointed him in 2008 to the FEC, where he would serve as chairman and vice chairman.
Craig Burkhardt, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP who has known him for 15 years, said the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election elevated the visibility of election law, and Mr. McGahn was “positioned to ride the wave of new interest.”
He described Mr. McGahn as a direct and precise lawyer endowed with an index-like knowledge of FEC case law and regulations, in contrast to his shaggy hair and known affinity for playing lead guitar and rock music.
Mr. Burkhardt placed Mr. McGahn as among the 10 best election lawyers in the country and the most generous of his time to other lawyers trying to settle into the practice.
At the FEC, Democrats and groups advocating for tougher campaign-finance restrictions accused Mr. McGahn ofsteering the agency into an era of gridlock. Mr. McGahn led a bloc of three Republicans who stymied efforts by advocacy groups aiming to reduce the influence of money in politics. Mr. McGahn argued it was a free-speech issue.
McGahn has his work cut out for him. Trump promises to be a swirling maelstrom of real and perceived conflicts of interest. But the larger danger is not with Trump himself, who can hire enough lawyers to keep himself straight and who probably takes some perverse pleasure in skating the edges of legality while curb-stomping propriety. A fish, as they say, rots from the head down. Trump will set the tone for his administration and if it is not a high, unambiguously ethical standard, his appointees will follow suit.
Other than the challenges facing McGahn in riding herd on Trump’s business interests, he seems admirably suited for the position of unraveling the tangled skein of Obama administration executive orders and helping the White House chart a path to reducing the role of regulatory agencies in our lives.