How a Corporate Law Firm Led a Political Revolution
On a balmy Saturday night in June, Traci Lovitt hosted a 50th birthday party for her husband, Ara, at their 9,800-square-foot Westchester mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. The couple met while clerking for Supreme Court justices: Traci for Sandra Day O’Connor, Ara for Antonin Scalia. These days, Ara worked in finance. Traci was a top partner at — and a contender to one day run — the international law firm of Jones Day, best known for representing Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns. To serve as M.C. for the event, the Lovitts flew in Richard Blade, the veteran disc jockey Ara listened to while growing up in Southern California. But Blade wasn’t the party’s biggest star. That distinction belonged to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
One day earlier, Barrett and four of her colleagues on the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion. Now she was wearing a pink dress and sitting at a flower-bedecked table under a tent on the Lovitts’ lush lawn. Barrett clerked for Scalia in the same session as Ara, in 1998 and 1999, and also became friends with Traci, jogging together around the National Mall after work. (When Trump nominated Barrett to the Supreme Court in 2020, Traci wrote to senators, praising the judge’s fair-mindedness and commitment to the rule of law.) But the connection to the court ran deeper than that. Scalia had spent years at Jones Day in the 1960s. And Traci ran an elite practice inside the firm that was focused in part on arguing cases before Barrett and her colleagues.
Guests at the Lovitts’ estate danced to Blade’s beats until 1 a.m. At one point, an attendee spotted Barrett chatting with Noel Francisco, another Jones Day partner, who had himself clerked for Scalia the year before Lovitt and Barrett. Francisco left the firm in 2017 to become Trump’s solicitor general, responsible for representing the government before the Supreme Court, and returned in 2020, eventually taking over Jones Day’s enormous Washington office.
Now his and Lovitt’s underlings were appearing regularly before the court. In one recent case brought by Jones Day, the court killed the Biden administration’s moratorium on home evictions during the pandemic. Less than a week after the Lovitts’ party, in another case Jones Day worked on, the court would severely limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of power-plant emissions.
For much of its history, Jones Day was a juggernaut in the field of corporate litigation. A global goliath with more than 40 offices and about 2,500 lawyers, it raked in billions a year in fees from tobacco, opioid, gun and oil companies, among many other giant corporations in need of a state-of-the-art defense. More than most of its competitors, the firm had an army of litigators who had perfected the art of exploiting tiny legal wrinkles, of burying outmatched opponents in paperwork and venue changes and procedural minutiae. But over the past two decades, Jones Day has been building a different kind of legal practice, one dedicated not just to helping Republicans win elections but to helping them achieve their political aims once in office. Chief among those aims was dismantling what Don McGahn — the Jones Day partner who helped run Trump’s campaign and then became his White House counsel — disparagingly referred to as the “administrative state.” To do that, the firm was bringing all the ruthless energy and creativity of corporate law to the political realm.
Jones Day lured dozens of young Supreme Court clerks, mostly from conservative justices, with six-figure signing bonuses and the opportunity to work on favored causes, including legal challenges to gun control and Obamacare. The firm allotted countless pro bono hours to aiding the needy — and also to assisting deep-pocketed right-wing groups as they fought against early voting and a federal corporate-oversight body.
Representing Trump’s 2016 campaign, Jones Day helped him solidify Republican support by pledging to pick federal judges from a list that was vetted in advance by the law firm and the Federalist Society. When Trump won, a large fleet of Jones Day lawyers sailed into his White House, the Justice Department and other parts of his administration. But the biggest impact was on the judiciary. Trump delegated the task of selecting federal judges to McGahn, who — working closely with Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader — placed well over 100 conservatives on the federal courts, including several who had recently worked at Jones Day. Even after rejoining Jones Day in 2019, McGahn continued to advise Senate Republicans on judicial strategy.
It is not uncommon for partners at corporate law firms to dabble in politics. Nor is it rare for a firm itself to throw its weight behind causes on the left or the right. One of the country’s richest firms, Paul, Weiss, for example, has long staked out liberal stances on the public issues of the day (even as it rakes in fees from companies that undercut those ideals). What sets Jones Day apart is the degree to which it penetrated the federal government under Trump and is now taking advantage of a judicial revolution that it helped set in motion.
The power of that revolution, which is spreading to courtrooms and statehouses around the country, is now on vivid display. Even with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the Supreme Court has been on a rightward tear. In its most recent term, Trump’s three appointees — the first two handpicked by McGahn and the third, Barrett, plucked by him out of academia for the federal bench — helped erase the constitutional right to abortion, erode the separation of church and state, undermine states’ power to control guns and constrain the authority of federal regulators. Jones Day had a hand in some of those cases, and the firm has telegraphed that it is eyeing additional legal challenges in line with its leaders’ ideology.
Jones Day’s influence seems poised to grow. This year, it has been collecting fees from a remarkable assortment of prominent Republican players: a Trump political-action committee; moderates like Senator Susan Collins; Trump allies like Dr. Mehmet Oz; hard-liners like Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — not to mention an assortment of super PACs supporting fringe candidates like Herschel Walker, the former N.F.L. star who is running for a Senate seat in Georgia. Francisco recently represented former Attorney General Bill Barr before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. McGahn recently began representing Senator Lindsey Graham as he fights a grand jury subpoena to testify about Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia. The chief of staff to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is a recent Jones Day alum. The next Republican presidential administration — whether it belongs to Trump, DeSantis or someone else — will most likely be stocked with Jones Day lawyers.
Founded in Cleveland in 1893, Jones Day was at the vanguard of an era of breakneck expansion in the legal industry. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was one of the first law firms to open multiple offices in the United States and then overseas. It was a tireless, and extremely successful, defender of some of America’s worst corporate actors. The firm helped R.J. Reynolds sow doubts about the dangers of cigarettes. It helped Charles Keating’s fraud-infested savings-and-loan association fend off regulators. It helped Purdue Pharma protect its patents for OxyContin. But it didn’t become a conservative machine until Stephen Brogan took over as managing partner in 2003.
Brogan, the son of a New York City police officer, joined Jones Day straight out of the University of Notre Dame’s law school in 1977 and, aside from a two-year stint in the Reagan Justice Department, has worked there ever since. A number of Brogan’s allies said the key to understanding him and his politics was through his faith. “Brogan is extremely conservative, hard-core Catholic, and that is the bedrock of who he is,” one of his Jones Day confidants told me. Brogan brought on a series of high-profile devotees of the Federalist Society — including leading Reagan and Bush administration lawyers like Michael Carvin and Noel Francisco — to work in the firm’s issues-and-appeals practice, which became a sort of in-house conservative think tank. Even as most of the firm’s lawyers remained focused on bread-and-butter work for big companies, Jones Day took on a growing list of ideologically charged cases and causes, including efforts by the ultraconservative Buckeye Institute to prevent the expansion of early voting in Ohio and challenge the legitimacy of the Obama administration’s newly inaugurated Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
By 2014, when a trio of Republican lawyers at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm that was in financial trouble, began looking for a new home, Jones Day was a natural fit. It was huge, it had a thriving Washington office and its leaders were conservative. Plus, the Patton Boggs crew — McGahn, Ben Ginsberg and William McGinley — would fill a void. While Jones Day had built up a formidable practice advising companies on how to navigate the federal bureaucracy, the firm didn’t have a practice advising politicians on how to navigate election and campaign-finance laws. And without the relationships that came from helping people win office, it was harder for Jones Day to wield influence on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
It helped that Ginsberg, who had been the top lawyer on presidential campaigns by George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, had known Francisco and Carvin for years. During the interview process, Ginsberg told Francisco that he recognized that Jones Day, despite its conservative reputation, probably employed a lot of Democrats. Would it be a problem to bring in a team that would represent polarizing Republicans? It would not, Francisco assured him. Indeed, promoting conservative principles was becoming part of the firm’s marketing pitch. “The government’s tentacles invade virtually every aspect of what our clients do,” Francisco said in a Jones Day promotional video in 2015. “The job of a lawyer and the job of courts is to ensure that the federal government lives within the limits that our Constitution sets, and I love making sure that those lines are enforced.”
Ginsberg and McGahn were well known throughout the Republican establishment, and several would-be presidents soon came to them seeking counsel; Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas and Chris Christie of New Jersey would become clients. McGahn — who had recently served on the Federal Election Commission, watering down campaign-finance rules and slowing the agency’s decision-making in what he said was an effort to make it more responsive to the people and groups it regulated — also represented a who’s who of other G.O.P. power players: the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association, the billionaire Koch brothers.
There was at least one other key client: Citizens United. The group, famous for its successful Supreme Court challenge of campaign spending restrictions, was run by Dave Bossie, an influential right-wing activist. One day in late 2014, Bossie and McGahn were on the phone, batting around ideas about which presidential campaigns the Jones Day lawyers should work for.
The Trump Investigations
The Trump Investigations
Numerous inquiries. Since former President Donald J. Trump left office, he has been facing several civil and criminal investigations into his business dealings and political activities. Here is a look at some notable cases:
The Trump Investigations
Classified documents inquiry. The F.B.I. searched Mr. Trump’s Florida home as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into his handling of classified materials. The inquiry is focused on documents that Mr. Trump had brought with him to Mar-a-Lago, his private club and residence, when he left the White House.
The Trump Investigations
Jan. 6 investigations. In a series of public hearings, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack laid out a comprehensive narrative of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This evidence could allow federal prosecutors, who are conducting a parallel criminal investigation, to indict Mr. Trump.
The Trump Investigations
Georgia election interference case. Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta-area district attorney, has been leading a wide-ranging criminal investigation into the efforts of Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. This case could pose the most immediate legal peril for the former president and his associates.
The Trump Investigations
New York State civil inquiry. Letitia James, the New York attorney general, has been conducting a civil investigation into Mr. Trump and his family business. The case is focused on whether Mr. Trump’s statements about the value of his assets were part of a pattern of fraud or were simply Trumpian showmanship.
The Trump Investigations
Manhattan criminal case. Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, has been investigating whether Mr. Trump or his family business intentionally submitted false property values to potential lenders. But the inquiry faded from view after signs emerged suggesting that Mr. Trump was unlikely to be indicted.
“What about Trump?” Bossie asked.
“What about Trump?” McGahn replied, skeptical.
“No, he’s really thinking about running.”
“He says this every four years. Isn’t he a Democrat from New York?”
“He’s gotten older; he’s conservative,” Bossie answered. “I think you guys would hit it off.” McGahn, as he recalled in a 2020 speech at Widener University in Pennsylvania, trusted Bossie and soon met Trump in New York. At the end of their talk, Trump signed a book for McGahn’s son: “You have a wonderful father,” he wrote. McGahn was impressed.
Trump at the time was attacking free trade and the establishment, and much of what he was saying resonated with McGahn. “He and I shared the same view about what was going to matter in 2016,” McGahn told me, “and it wasn’t what the D.C. consultants thought was going to matter.” Trump was looking for a well-regarded lawyer to show the world that his fledgling campaign should be taken seriously. McGahn agreed to take him on.
Credit…Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro
From an early age, McGahn was motivated by what he later described as “an aversion to concentrated power.” That gut-level feeling hardened into conservatism in college, when he watched the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. McGahn was galvanized by what he saw as the Democrats’ disgraceful treatment of a respected conservative judge. By the time McGahn hopped aboard the Trump campaign in 2015, his views had evolved into a simmering obsession with liberal courts and the administrative state. Unelected judges, in his view, were regularly ruling in favor of unelected bureaucrats, who were trampling the rights of private citizens and companies.
McGahn was representing a long-shot candidate, but he had his eyes on a very big prize. Trump was not burdened by strong convictions on many of the major issues of the day. One blank spot involved the judiciary. Here was a rare chance for a lawyer to stamp his own beliefs — a preference for conservative judges who would rein in federal agencies and rigidly hew to the Constitution as it was written — onto the agenda of a presidential contender.
In early 2016, McGahn, traveling with the Trump team in Iowa for its caucuses, got word that Jonathan Bunch, who at the time was the head of external relations at the Federalist Society, wanted to speak to someone at the campaign. Perhaps more than any other interest group, the Federalist Society was a kingmaker in Washington’s conservative circles, serving as a feeder for the federal courts and as a gatekeeper for aspiring Republican politicians. McGahn, who was the president of the society’s local chapter in law school, called Bunch from his hotel room overlooking downtown Des Moines. Bunch explained that the group was surveying the major candidates and wanted to know if the Trump camp had given much thought to the sorts of judges he might nominate if elected. “You have nothing to worry about with us,” McGahn recalled assuring him.
That March, about two dozen Republicans — senators, House members, lobbyists, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, among others — showed up at Jones Day’s neoclassical building on Capitol Hill for lunch. McGahn convened the session to help the conservative establishment gain comfort with the Republican Party’s unorthodox front-runner. The idea was that Trump would deliver brief remarks and then take questions. It had been only a few weeks since Antonin Scalia’s sudden death. Mitch McConnell had made clear that he would not allow a vote on anyone President Barack Obama nominated to replace him. The next president, therefore, would get an immediate vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court. McGahn and Trump had plotted about how to use this unforeseen development to shore up conservative support for his candidacy. Today they would roll out a key phase of their strategy.
After Trump spoke for a few minutes, Leo invited him to talk about judges. “Why don’t I put out a list publicly of people who could be the sort of people I would put on the Supreme Court?” Trump suggested, as McGahn later recalled. The room reacted with joy. (He and Leo have at times given divergent accounts of the fateful meeting; in Leo’s telling, McGahn had asked him to bring a list of names.) If Trump would publicly commit to selecting Scalia’s successor from an approved list, well, that would do a lot to assuage conservatives’ concerns about a guy who had previously supported abortion rights. The final list of potential Supreme Court picks would take months to come together — a team led by McGahn and Leo scoured the candidates’ court opinions — but it would become a crucial turning point for Trump’s campaign. “The list reassured a whole lot of Republicans,” McConnell explained at a Federalist Society meeting in Kentucky in 2019, appearing alongside McGahn. The creation of the list “became the single biggest issue bringing our side in line behind him.”
About a week after Trump won the 2016 election, McConnell called McGahn to talk strategy; there were more than 100 federal judicial vacancies, largely because McConnell had been refusing to hold votes on Obama’s nominees. (When Obama entered office, there had been roughly half as many unfilled judgeships.) It was widely expected that Trump was going to tap McGahn to be his White House counsel. Now the Senate majority leader advised McGahn to insist that the president assign judge-picking authority to him and him alone — a break from the tradition in previous administrations, where a group of experts tended to debate the merits, substantively and politically, of various candidates. Just do this yourself, McConnell advised. McGahn pitched the idea to Trump. Trump said sure.
McGahn was poised to wield immense power — and so was his firm. Apparently as a result of Jones Day’s immersion with the Trump campaign, and McGahn’s planned elevation to White House counsel, the firm’s lawyers soon became responsible for identifying and scrubbing candidates for many positions in the White House and the Justice Department. The work was unpaid. (Some Jones Day attorneys told me they objected to devoting pro bono hours to the Trump transition, but they were overruled.) Why was Jones Day willing to do it? In part, it seemed, because it provided the firm with a unique opportunity to seed a new administration with its own staff.
In the White House Counsel’s Office, McGahn surrounded himself with his old colleagues. Greg Katsas, a Jones Day partner who helped lead the Justice Department’s transition planning, would be his deputy. Annie Donaldson, who had followed McGahn from Patton Boggs, would be his chief of staff. At least three other Jones Day employees would be heading there, too. William McGinley landed the White House job of cabinet secretary. Jones Day attorneys occupied the upper echelons of the Justice Department and were perched near the top of the Commerce and Agriculture Departments. Agencies charged with regulating energy markets and the safety of consumer products would have commissioners from Jones Day. The Jones Day lawyer poised for the highest-ranking government post, aside from McGahn, was Noel Francisco, whom Trump nominated to be solicitor general. That meant the firm would have its recent partners planted in two of the most powerful legal jobs in the U.S. government.
Any new presidential administration draws heavily from the partnerships of major law firms, and Jones Day attorneys had served under Obama and other presidents (and would serve under President Biden). But what transpired at the dawn of the Trump era was an extraordinary transfer of talent from a single law firm to a new administration. Jones Day itself also seemed to double down on its partisan turn. In the spring of 2017, an email went out to partners saying that they were expected to sign a public letter endorsing Francisco. This was too much for some Jones Day lawyers, appalled by the Trump administration’s first two months, which included a ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. One former partner told me this was the moment she began looking for a new job. “I felt like I was being conscripted into supporting an administration I didn’t believe in,” she said.
It soon became hard to distinguish where Jones Day’s interests ended and the Trump administration’s began. Cases the firm had argued from outside the government were now ones that could be decided from inside it. In 2012, for instance, Jones Day began a multifaceted attack on the Affordable Care Act as Obama was campaigning for re-election. One prong was lining up dozens of Catholic organizations to file lawsuits challenging Obamacare’s requirement that employer insurance plans cover the costs of contraception. Now, with a Trump administration stocked with former Jones Day partners, the suits were moot. McGahn’s office worked with the Justice Department to issue a rule in October 2017 saying that employers with religious objections to birth control could exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans.
The benefits to all players were considerable. Jones Day and the Justice Department worked out a legal settlement: The litigation would be terminated, and the government would promise not to force the plaintiffs to provide contraceptive coverage. While Jones Day had said it was donating its legal services to the Catholic groups, the settlement included a provision in which the government would pay Jones Day $3 million to cover some of the costs it incurred. In addition to four Jones Day attorneys, the signature of a single representative of the U.S. government was affixed to the settlement agreement. His name was Brett Shumate. He was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil division. His boss was a recent arrival from Jones Day. Less than two years later, Shumate would leave the Justice Department and be hired as a partner in the firm’s Washington office. (Matthew Kairis, a Jones Day partner who helped negotiate the settlement, told me that he was not aware of Shumate being involved in the talks and that it was “silly” to connect this to his hiring.)
Jones Day had soon built a powerful network within the administrative state that McGahn and his colleagues so loathed. The 2020 census was approaching, and senior Trump advisers, including Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, hatched the idea of asking people whether they were citizens. The apparent goal was to scare immigrants from participating in the census. That would reduce the recorded populations of parts of the country that leaned Democratic and thereby strip them of congressional seats. At the Commerce Department, of which the Census Bureau is a part, much of the legal work for justifying the addition of the citizenship question fell to James Uthmeier, who had recently arrived from Jones Day. The key was to have another government agency formally request that the question be included for nonpolitical reasons.
In the fall of 2017, Uthmeier personally delivered a memo to one of his recent Jones Day colleagues, John Gore, who now occupied a senior job in the Justice Department. In a handwritten note, which was recently unearthed by a congressional committee, Uthmeier suggested to Gore that the Justice Department request that the citizenship question be included for the sake of protecting voting rights. Gore soon drafted a letter to the Commerce Department formally making that very request. (A series of federal judges concluded that the voting-rights rationale was a pretext, and the plan eventually unraveled.)
Jones Day, meanwhile, agreed to take on Trump’s 2020 campaign as a client, while also continuing to deal with the fallout from the 2016 race. The firm’s duties included defending the Trump campaign as the special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional Democrats investigated Russian interference in the election. Brogan, Jones Day’s managing partner, took part in devising plans to help Trump’s campaign foil the various investigations — or at least get them to end as quickly and painlessly as possible — including by trying to control which documents the campaign handed to congressional investigators and which staff members were available for interviews.
Brogan soon made a play for more work. It had been McGahn’s idea, one of his confidants told me. He wanted to be spending his time filling the judiciary with Federalist Society-approved judges and, to a lesser extent, gutting the administrative state. Thanks to the work that he and his Jones Day colleagues had done vetting judicial candidates, McGahn had gotten off to a fast start. He arranged for Trump to nominate Neil Gorsuch to succeed Scalia on the Supreme Court and also presented the president with nominees (like Amy Coney Barrett) for various appeals courts. But what McGahn increasingly found himself and his team spending time on was Trump’s personal legal problems. He and Brogan discussed whether Jones Day could be brought in to handle that work. Brogan in the spring of 2017 met at least twice with Trump in the Oval Office to pitch Jones Day’s services.
Even some of Brogan’s allies told me they worried that the firm was approaching a point at which this would become a problem for clients. Big companies, after all, had been increasingly vocal about their opposition to Trump’s extreme policies and rhetoric. Brogan’s advisers suggested that he pull back. He forged ahead. That spring, a team of Jones Day lawyers in Washington was assigned the task of researching and tracking every angle of the Mueller investigation in anticipation of getting the job. One partner, Geoff Stewart, was roped in because he had worked with Mueller in the early 1990s at another law firm. Stewart advised his colleagues on what strategies and evidence the special counsel might be pursuing. (Brogan didn’t respond to my repeated requests for comment.)
In the end, Brogan didn’t get the job as Trump’s personal outside counsel. (It went instead to John Dowd.) For his part, McGahn was growing worried about his own potential legal exposure — especially when Trump in June 2017 pushed him to fire Mueller. McGahn refused and contemplated quitting. Around then, he called Brogan. The president was crazy, McGahn fumed. Maybe, he ventured, he should cut his losses and return to Jones Day.
Being unhappy is “not a good enough reason to quit,” Brogan replied, according to McGahn’s confidant. If McGahn threw in the towel so soon after joining the White House, it would look bad not just for McGahn but also for Jones Day. McGahn, who had gotten as far as packing up his office, heeded Brogan’s advice and stayed put until late 2018. By then, he had accomplished his mission. The Senate had just confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the second justice McGahn had chosen, Trump had nominated and Mitch McConnell’s Senate had confirmed. With McGahn in charge of selecting judicial nominees, the White House had nominated more than 130 judges to the federal courts in a span of 21 months. By the time they were confirmed, fully one-quarter of the appellate bench had turned over.
It was a testament to McGahn’s devotion to the cause of reconstituting the federal judiciary — a planning process that started years earlier when Trump met with Leonard Leo and others inside Jones Day’s Washington office. After he left the White House, McGahn was a regular on the conservative speaking circuit, and he liked to say how much it bugged him when Democrats groused that Trump had outsourced the judge-picking process to the Federalist Society. “We didn’t outsource it,” McGahn would recite, building to the punchline. “We insourced it!” He noted that all his subordinates in the White House Counsel’s Office were members of the group. At a Federalist Society event in California in 2019, he declared: “I am you. You are me.”
Through the end of 2020, Jones Day would collect a total of about $15 million from various Trump campaign committees (an amount that would continue growing over the next two years). That worked out to something like one-tenth of 1 percent of the firm’s total revenue during that period. Jones Day was throwing many high-priced lawyers at this work, and each was racking up hundreds of billable hours. In terms of the workload, this was the equivalent of a large corporate client, except that a large corporate client could easily generate tens of millions of dollars in annual billings. Some lawyers became convinced that the firm was doing a lot of this work for basically nothing. “We were subsidizing Trump!” a partner who was close to Brogan said to me. “I told everyone who would listen: ‘We are fools. We are taking partnership money and subsidizing him!’” (Joe Sims, a retired partner at the firm, told me that speculation about the firm having subsidized Trump was “almost certainly wrong. I have been told that all time for legal services provided to the campaign was appropriately billed and collected.”)
Perhaps Brogan was satisfied with the lower taxes and conservative judges that the Trump administration was spawning. The Justice Department’s full-throated backing for greater religious freedoms probably didn’t hurt, either, especially when Jeff Sessions, as attorney general, presented his Place to Worship initiative — in which the department would sue localities that blocked the construction or expansion of houses of worship — at an event at Jones Day’s Washington office in June 2018.
There was another way in which the firm would benefit from its entwinement with Trump: By early 2019, Jones Day was becoming a refuge for veterans of his administration — a combination of returning alumni and lawyers who previously worked elsewhere. Among the first to come back was McGahn. Brogan agreed to give the returning partner, who reported earning $2.4 million when he left for the White House, a seven-figure raise.
Right on McGahn’s heels came Rob Luther. He had been one of McGahn’s assistants in the White House Counsel’s Office, a crucial cog in the judge-selecting machine that McGahn assembled. (Before serving in the White House, he worked as a Senate aide to Sessions.) “We did it!” Luther exclaimed to a Jones Day colleague shortly after he joined the firm. “We reshaped the judiciary! We changed the country!”
Others followed, including John Gore and Brett Shumate, who had signed off on the settlement of the Obamacare contraception lawsuit and had worked at a different law firm before joining the Justice Department. “The insights and understanding he brings to regulatory matters will immeasurably benefit our clients,” McGahn said. (Not all of the alumni returned. James Uthmeier went to work for DeSantis, ultimately becoming the governor’s chief of staff.)
Read More on Trump Investigations
Key developments in the inquiries into the former president and his allies.
- White House Documents: Former President Donald J. Trump kept more than 700 pages of classified documents, according to a letter from the National Archives. The Justice Department is said to have retrieved more than 300 classified documents from Mr. Trump since he left office.
- A Plea Deal: Allen H. Weisselberg, a top Trump executive who was indicted along with the Trump Organization on tax charges by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, pleaded guilty to 15 felonies. As part of the deal, he is expected to testify at the company’s trial.
- Giuliani in Georgia: Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been told that he is a target in a criminal investigation into election interference in the state, appeared before an Atlanta grand jury.
- Invoking the Fifth Amendment: Sitting for a deposition in the New York attorney general’s civil inquiry into his business practices, Mr. Trump repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self incrimination.
Rounding out this first wave was Noel Francisco. He announced his departure as solicitor general in June 2020. By then, he had argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court. He’d defended Trump’s ban on travelers from those predominantly Muslim countries. He’d eroded the power of labor unions. He’d protected a Colorado baker’s right not to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. He’d beaten back an injunction that would have blocked funding for a wall along the Mexican border. The month after stepping down as solicitor general, he rejoined Jones Day.
Having the most recent solicitor general and White House counsel on staff — not to mention all the others — afforded undeniable bragging rights to Jones Day. But it also deepened a growing cultural chasm inside the firm. Several lawyers told me that this influx from Team Trump was a breaking point. They had been willing to swallow the fact that their firm worked for the Trump campaign. They had managed to wave that away as an unfortunate accident. But welcoming back the men who had been entwined with what felt to them like a poisonous, lawless administration? “That is the firm giving its imprimatur,” a lawyer in the Washington office said, echoing others. “It’s not an accident. It’s an endorsement.”
While McGahn was in the White House, there was a saying among some Republicans at Jones Day: No vacancy left behind. It was a nod, of course, to how many conservatives McGahn was embedding in the judiciary. But it had a more specific, close-to-home meaning, too: Jones Day lawyers were among those ending up on the bench. Greg Katsas was first. Trump nominated him to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in September 2017. Katsas, a longtime Jones Day partner, had gone with McGahn to the White House Counsel’s Office. Now he was getting a lifetime appointment to the country’s second-highest court.
Nine months later, Trump nominated two men to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati: Eric Murphy and Chad Readler. Murphy was the state solicitor of Ohio; before that, he worked in Jones Day’s Columbus office, alongside Readler, who had been an issues-and-appeals partner before taking a top job in the Justice Department. “We’re very proud,” a Jones Day partner cheered in a news release. Then there was Stephen Vaden, who had followed McGahn from Patton Boggs to Jones Day. As an associate at Jones Day, he defended state voter-ID laws. Vaden landed at the Department of Agriculture, where he became general counsel. In 2019, the White House nominated him to the U.S. Court of International Trade.
Finally, Kathryn Mizelle. She was one of Katsas’s first clerks in his new job as an appellate judge. Then she landed a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas. Jones Day scooped her up from there, luring her with a roughly $400,000 signing bonus. Only months later, Trump in September 2020 nominated Mizelle, who was 33 at the time, to a Federal District Court in her native Florida. The American Bar Association deemed her “not qualified” because of her scant professional experience, noting, among other deficits, that she had never tried a case as lead or even co-counsel. The Senate confirmed her anyway, and Thomas swore her in at a ceremony with her husband Chad, who worked in the Trump administration and was then hired as a Jones Day lawyer. Before long, Mizelle would make international headlines by striking down the Biden administration’s mask mandate on planes and other modes of transportation.
In what turned out to be a fortuitous change for voters, the battleground state of Pennsylvania expanded the use of mail-in voting shortly before the coronavirus pandemic made in-person voting (and so many other once-routine activities) a risky endeavor. The only catch was that ballots had to be received by Election Day.
Normally this would not have posed a problem. But in the fall of 2020, the Postal Service had become unpredictable and slow. Sometimes letters zipped through the system; on other occasions, they vanished for weeks. People who sent their mail-in ballots days before the election now risked having their votes lost to the sluggish mail service.
In September 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that — because of the combination of the importance of mail-in voting during a pandemic and the chaos engulfing the Postal Service — the requirement that ballots be received by Election Day risked disenfranchising voters and violating the State Constitution’s guarantee of “free and equal elections.” The court ordered that the deadline be extended by three days.
Trump had spent months railing against mail-in voting; Republicans suspected that these ballots would skew Democratic. And so the Pennsylvania Republican Party set out to enforce the Election Day deadline — and, in effect, to make it harder for those mail-in votes to count. To do that, the party turned to Jones Day.
The lead lawyer on the Pennsylvania case was John Gore, who pushed the census citizenship question while at the Justice Department. His goal was to get the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Pennsylvania’s three-day extension. The foundation of his claim was that the extension violated the Legislature’s intent and that by granting those extra days, the state was essentially allowing “voters to cast or mail ballots after Election Day,” Gore wrote. This was not true — the Pennsylvania court had specifically said that ballots needed to be postmarked by Election Day. But Gore was seizing on a thin slice of the Pennsylvania ruling: If late-arriving ballots had illegible or missing postmarks, they would be presumed valid absent evidence to the contrary.
Gore’s claim — that this part of the ruling was an invitation to abuse — was not widely accepted, even by Republicans. A group of 13 lawyers and others who worked in Republican administrations wrote in a court filing that it is “common sense” that “voters will know and seek to comply with the widely publicized Nov. 3 deadline for mailing ballots.” They added that rejecting Gore’s claims “by the broadest majority possible will benefit this court, our country and its precious tradition of the peaceful retention or transfer of power.” The application was ultimately stayed — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Thomas all voted to grant it, but Barrett had yet to be sworn in to break the tie.
In early October, Gore and Jones Day represented Trump and the Republican Party in another Pennsylvania voting suit with significant implications. In this case, they were trying to force county election boards to toss out ballots with signatures that officials didn’t think matched the voter-registration records already on file. Otherwise, Gore said in a court filing, the door would be opened to “the counting of fraudulent mail-in and absentee ballots.” He was giving voice — and legal backing — to the president’s unsubstantiated fear-mongering about the possibility of an election tainted by fraud. About two weeks before the election, the State Supreme Court rejected this claim as not being grounded in the law.
As the results trickled in on election night, Trump at one point led in Pennsylvania by nearly 700,000 votes. He declared victory, trying to exploit what he and his aides had known would be a fleeting “red mirage” before millions of mail-in ballots were tallied. The day after the election, with Trump’s lead in Pennsylvania dwindling, his lawyers (not from Jones Day) filed a motion to join the litigation over the state’s three-day extension. Trump made clear that he was pinning his hopes in large part on this action. The outcome, his team wrote in a motion, “may well dictate who will become the next president.”
Two days later, the Friday after the election, Gore filed a Supreme Court petition directly to Alito. It asked the court to order Pennsylvania to segregate any mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day — and to stop counting them. Gore raised questions about whether the state’s county election boards were properly handling the late-arriving ballots and warned that the state was at risk of mixing “invalid” votes with legitimate ones — without presenting any evidence that this was actually happening. Within hours, Alito ordered that the election boards keep late ballots separate.
As it turned out, this wouldn’t matter. Barely 10,000 mail-in ballots arrived during the three-day extension period, and by the weekend after the election, Biden was up by more than 30,000 votes in Pennsylvania. (His margin ultimately would be more than 80,000.) In the end, more than three out of every four mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania went for Biden. It was easy to see why Republicans had been so eager to curtail the counting of those votes.
Jones Day would later insist that the firm was raising legitimate, hard-to-settle constitutional questions that only the Supreme Court could adjudicate. As Carvin, one of the conservative firebrands in Jones Day’s issues-and-appeals group, put it in an email to me, “There is an obvious, dispositive, universally recognized distinction between a (pre-election defensive) challenge to voting rules as unconstitutional” and “a postelection challenge alleging that the election was stolen because voting rules were broken when the ballots were cast and counted. The former is universally accepted as being in the best traditions of the bar because it is, among other things, the only way to determine whether a voting rule is constitutional or not.” (The firm didn’t participate in the outlandish vote-rigging lawsuits that Trump and his allies would file in the weeks ahead.)
This blurred a basic fact: Jones Day and its lawyers were trying to stop votes from being counted, all in an effort to serve the client.
Even before the election, some partners had left Jones Day, citing concern about the direction of the firm. Ginsberg, who had been hired with McGahn in 2014, announced his retirement in August 2020, telling acquaintances that he didn’t want his last presidential campaign to involve helping a demagogue destroy democracy. Now, in the aftermath, other partners were harboring similar thoughts. Some of them vented to Kevyn Orr, who at the time was the head of Jones Day’s Washington office and a rare liberal in the firm’s senior leadership. For years, Orr himself had been privately grumbling to colleagues about his distaste for the firm’s work for Trump, worried that it would permanently stain the firm’s reputation. Now, it seemed, those fears were being realized.
Orr didn’t know it yet, but with the nation’s courts in solidly conservative hands, his employer was gearing up to tilt even further to the right, setting out to establish far-reaching precedents. On behalf of a group founded by Karl Rove and Bill Barr, among others, John Gore would defend a Florida law that, ostensibly in the interest of preventing voter fraud, restricted the use of ballot drop boxes. On behalf of a group of Realtors in Alabama, Brett Shumate would successfully challenge the Biden administration’s moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. On behalf of several dozen Republican lawmakers, including much of the party’s congressional leadership, McGahn and seven of his colleagues would weigh in, via a friend-of-the-court brief, on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which involved a high school football coach praying with his students immediately after games. Jones Day would claim that if the court ruled against Kennedy, then by extension “a Jewish librarian may not put on his yarmulke and silently study a religious text in the library during his break” — a flimsy analogy, because Kennedy was kneeling in prayer on the field, not in private, and much of his team was joining him, with some students feeling as if they had no choice. Yet Gorsuch, whom McGahn selected as Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment five years earlier, would write a majority opinion that applied the same logic, accepting that Kennedy’s midfield prayers were nothing more than quiet, private affairs.
And on behalf of a major coal company, Jones Day would help persuade the Supreme Court to invalidate the E.P.A.’s efforts to rein in carbon emissions — a landmark victory that, Jones Day noted triumphantly, would most likely open the door to new “legal challenges to other exercises of executive agency power.”
For now, though, all that was on the horizon. As the legal battles over the election unfolded and began their spiral toward Jan. 6, the questions remained: What did it mean to work for Jones Day? Who were the lawyers serving? How far would they go?
In mid-November 2020, Orr convened a pair of videoconference calls for the lawyers under his domain in Washington. The first was with partners. Orr got as far as asserting that Jones Day was not trying to overturn the election and was simply litigating a constitutional issue. Then the normally staid meeting disintegrated. That’s a semantic distinction! one partner angrily interjected. The call intensified. Another partner said that the company’s identity seemed to be at a crossroads and that it was not clear which way it was headed. Others said they were considering quitting.
Sparkle Sooknanan, one of the firm’s young stars, also spoke up. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, she had set out to New York at age 16, paid her way through college and law school and landed clerkships for federal judges, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sooknanan had become a Jones Day partner earlier in the year at age 36. Now, on the call, her voice trembled as she denounced the firm’s work in Pennsylvania. “This lawsuit was brought for no other reason than to deprive poor people of the right to vote,” she said.
The next day, Orr held another virtual meeting, this one for associates. These lower-level lawyers were even more worked up than the partners, and they grew agitated when Orr, after reciting boilerplate comments about the importance of lawyers taking on unpopular clients, ended the call without allowing for questions. (Orr declined to comment on internal deliberations, citing client confidentiality.)
Shortly afterward, Parker Rider-Longmaid, an associate who was on the call, sent an email to the whole Washington office. The first and last lines of the message were simply, “We dissent.” Rider-Longmaid criticized the firm for having lent “its prestige and credibility to the project of an administration bent on undermining our democracy and our rule of law” and for taking legal action that “was designed to suppress the vote.” He added: “We as lawyers choose our clients and our causes. We choose what we stand for.”
A couple of months later, shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, a memo went out to Jones Day’s lawyers about personnel changes and other internal news. A senior official in Trump’s Justice Department was returning. A partner was retiring. And six other lawyers — Sooknanan and Rider-Longmaid among them — were leaving. The memo offered them a cheery farewell: “We wish you all the best!”
Source photographs: McGahn: Ron Sachs/SIPA/Newscom. Buildings: Library of Congress. Gorsuch: Pat Benic/UPI/Alamy. Kavanaugh: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images. Barrett: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Building: Alamy.
David Enrich is the business investigations editor at The Times. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump and the Corruption of Justice,” from which this article is adapted. Cristiana Couceiro is an illustrator and a designer in Portugal. She is known for her retro-style collages.