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What challenges will Trump’s White House counsel face?

November 25, 2016 at 6:45 PM EST
President-elect Donald Trump has announced that his campaign attorney, Donald McGahn, will serve as White House counsel. To examine the responsibilities of the counsel’s role as an adviser on ethics, public appearance and judgement, as well as the challenges McGahn may face, John Yang speaks with Jack Quinn, who held the position under President Bill Clinton.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President-elect Donald Trump continues to fill positions in his administration over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

John Yang has more on one with added significance.

JOHN YANG: To examine the role of the White House counsel and the challenges Donald McGahn faces tackling president-elect Trump’s business holdings, we’re joined by Jack Quinn, who was White House counsel under President Bill Clinton.

Jack Quinn, welcome.

JACK QUINN, Former White House Counsel: Thank you, John.

JOHN YANG: When a White House counsel approaches an issue like figuring out what to do with a president’s business holdings, is the client the president as a individual or the presidency as an institution?

JACK QUINN: It’s definitely the latter.

As White House counsel, you represent the office of the president of United States, not the individual, whether it’s Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.

JOHN YANG: So, in this case, the counsel may be looking at having to tell the president as an individual maybe he can’t do what he wants or maybe what he wants to do isn’t a good idea?

JACK QUINN: That’s right.

And the White House counsel is the one who is in a position to invoke executive privilege, for example. A White House counsel cannot participate in a private litigation involving a president in his individual capacity and use that power to influence the outcome of the litigation.

That would be inappropriate. And while it’s true that the president is exempt in certain senses from the conflict-of-interest rules, as are other federal officials, for good reason, that is not a blank check, so to speak. There are other governors on the conduct of the presidency.

The president may not accept emoluments, or, in other words, economic benefits, from foreign powers, still has to file disclosure of his financial information, and, most importantly, ultimately, is governed by the impeachment provisions, which enable the Congress to remove a president if he commits high crimes or misdemeanors, which is generally understood to mean an abuse of power.

JOHN YANG: So, is the standard — the standard is more than just the letter of the law? Is there something broader that a counsel looks at when advising the president on something like the business holdings?

JACK QUINN: Sure.

Well, the White House counsel and others need to look not just at the letter of the law, but also at the power of the Congress, which is equally broad, to invoke the impeachment provisions, for example, if a president does abuse the power.

Remember, the conflict of interest provision simply says you can’t participate in a decision that would affect you or a member of your family financially. It doesn’t mean that you can use the power of government to influence this — to create decisions that would benefit you.

We’re really in uncharted territory when it comes to that. That’s not to presume that anything of this kind will take place, but this is, as I say, not a blank check. I think it’s an appropriate metaphor in this case.

JOHN YANG: So, in addition to sort of the ethics questions that the counsel looks at, what other areas in sort of representing the institutional interests of the presidency, what other areas is the White House counsel looking at?

JACK QUINN: Well, look, ultimately what one wants to do is ensure that the American people have faith in their government, in their president, and everyone who works for their president.

So it is awfully important that the White House counsel do everything possible to make sure that the appearance of conflict, the appearance of self-dealing is avoided. That’s critically important. As I say, other officials, and the White House counsel and the president himself need to provide that assurance to the American people as well.

JOHN YANG: You have been — before you held the office, you had been counsel to the vice president, Al Gore at the time. You had experience on the Hill, political campaigns. Is there anything that really can prepare anyone for becoming White House counsel?

JACK QUINN: No.

There are so many things that come up in a job like that that — you know, when I walked into the office the first time, I thought there would be volumes on the shelves of prior decisions. It’s not like that at all.

You do have the Office of Legal Counsel over at the Justice Department that is helpful, and you have a large staff of lawyers who help you do the research necessary to make good decisions. But decisions come up all the time that are novel, that have never come up before.

And, you know, you have to exercise good judgment, again, remembering all of the time that you’re in a position of sacred trust, as are all the other people around you, and ultimately you have got to make a judgment that is in the interest of the American people and the conduct of good government.

JOHN YANG: And there is no manual, no handbook.

JACK QUINN: There is not.

JOHN YANG: Jack Quinn, thanks so much for joining us.

JACK QUINN: You’re so welcome.

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