WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is expected to name conservative Catholic activist and longtime Washington commercial lawyer Pat Cipollone as his next White House counsel to replace Donald McGahn, according to a person directly involved in the decision.
Cipollone, who practices commercial litigation at Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner, is well liked and respected among Trump's personal lawyers and had been informally advising them on the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 elections since at least June.
Cipollone is expected to take over the premier legal office in the next week, pending a security clearance review. He would head up this office at a momentous and challenging time. The White House counsel's team has been eviscerated by departures, having dwindled down to 25 lawyers from 35 earlier in the year. The office normally has a staff of 50 lawyers. It has also lost four of its five key deputies in recent months.
The losses come at an inopportune time: The White House is bracing for a withering investigative assault from Congress if Democrats take control of the House of Representatives after the midterm elections. The White House Counsel's Office will be the key manager and defender of the administration in the expected flood of congressional investigations and subpoenas.
Trump had also debated hiring Emmet Flood, a White House lawyer who is now helping to handle the special counsel investigation, but he ultimately decided to let Flood focus on his current task. Flood, who is good friends with Cipollone, will remain in his key role.
Trump surprised some with his hasty announcement in late August that McGahn, who has led the administration's efforts to reshape the judiciary, would leave his post as soon as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation process was completed.
Though the president had not yet made a selection in August, he tweeted that he was "very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Donald McGahn as White House Counsel."
According to the biography on his firm's website, Cipollone has practiced in commercial litigation, trade regulation and health care fraud. He has extensive expertise in defending corporations as well as handling complex federal investigations and "prepublication negotiations" over defamatory media reports.
He is a former partner at the law firm Kirkland and Ellis, whose attorneys have included now-Justice Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and former George W. Bush administration solicitor general Paul Clement.
Cipollone is well regarded among some of Trump's senior advisers, including the president's outside attorneys, Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani. He became a familiar voice of counsel to Trump in the late summer, speaking with him by phone frequently.
Cipollone is not a household name but is respected among Washington lawyers for his nuanced work on complex federal investigations and corporate defense. He worked at the Justice Department in the 1990s as then-Attorney General William P. Barr's counsel for communications and special projects.
Tom Yannucci, former chairman of the Kirkland firm where Cipollone once worked, said he is "a master at handling high-stakes cases."
"I helped recruit Pat to Kirkland in 1993, and it was one of the best things I did for my firm," he said. He added that Cipollone has the combination of personal skills, calm decisionmaking and "blazing smarts" that will prove important if a Democratic House takes on the White House next year.
"He's very well qualified to deal with that kind of situation, not to inflame but to move it forward," Yanucci said.
Cipollone is active in the Catholic community, having served on the board of the Catholic Information Center, a group that organizes events in Washington, as well as the Board of Visitors of the Columbus School of Law. He was a founding member of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, according to his biography with that group.
Another powerful connection the lawyer has to Trump is conservative commentator and Trump ally Laura Ingraham. Ingraham calls Cipollone her godfather, and she credited him as her "spiritual mentor" before she converted to Catholicism in 2002.