Donald McGahn’s departure this fall from atop President Donald Trump White House’s legal team will further diminish the ranks of senior lawyers who have served the administration from the start, likely leaving in place a lone deputy who joined the counsel’s office from Kirkland & Ellis last year.
The White House Counsel’s Office, which has had four deputies since the start of Trump’s presidency, could soon be down to just John Eisenberg, the top lawyer on national security matters.
The office has seen the exits of three deputies in the last several months in addition to the announcement that McGahn will leave this fall. Stefan Passantino, the deputy who oversees ethics and compliance issues, leaves his post at the end of the week. The National Law Journal reported last month that he has told friends for some time of his plans to leave by the end of the summer.
Uttam Dhillon, a White House lawyer who held various jobs in government, left his role as a White House deputy this summer to serve as the acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Two other deputies—Makan Delrahim and Gregory Katsas—left their posts last year. Delrahim heads the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, while Katsas was named to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
At the start of the administration, McGahn brought on over two dozen attorneys to jump-start work at the White House counsel’s office. While allies of the Trump administration have stressed that the steady stream of departures, at the deputy level and below, is expected at this point in a president’s first term, the exits have also left the counsel’s office with a bare bones operation.
That leaves Eisenberg as the last standing deputy at the White House Counsel’s Office.
Who is John Eisenberg? He’s the legal adviser for the national security council, and deputy counsel for national security affairs. Before he joined the White House, he was a partner in Kirkland & Ellis’ Washington, D.C., office from 2009 and early 2017. He earned $1 million in his last year at the firm, representing 18 clients. They included the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, BP America, General Motors and Boeing, according to his financial disclosure form last year.
Eisenberg was among the new Trump administration lawyers who received an ethics waiver allowing him to keep up some engagement with Kirkland & Ellis. The waiver specifically allowed him to “participate in communications and meetings where [Kirkland] represents parties in matters affecting public policy issues which are important to the priorities of the administration.”
McGahn said in the waiver authorization that the Trump administration “has an interest in [Eisenberg] interacting with Kirkland & Ellis LLP in those limited instances to ensure its interests are protected and advanced.” The waiver does not authorize Eisenberg to have a hand in matters “in which he participated personally and substantially” while he was a Kirkland partner.
Eisenberg’s annual financial disclosure, obtained by The National Law Journal on Thursday, shows he picked up an additional $36,000 last year. (McGahn, a former partner at Jones Day, picked up over $1,100,000, according to his form.)
In his role at the White House, Eisenberg has found himself entangled in some of the Trump administration’s controversies stemming from federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He drew scrutiny last year over his reported involvement in the preparation of intelligence files shared with U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a Trump ally and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
He was also involved in a discussion last February between the White House staff and then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, concerning Flynn’s conversation with former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, according to a letter written by the president’s former personal attorney. The New York Times published that letter in June.
Eisenberg worked at the Justice Department from 2006 to 2009 before joining Kirkland & Ellis. He served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel and as an associate deputy attorney general, working on intelligence and national security issues. Eisenberg, a Yale law graduate, is a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.