McGahn — together with fellow Republican FEC appointees Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen, currently chairman of the commission — then formed a powerful, united voting block from 2008 until he left the FEC to return to private practice at Patton Boggs in 2013. (He’s since jumped to another firm, Jones Day).
McGahn’s FEC tenure coincided with a series of federal court rulings, including the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which increasingly deregulated how campaign cash may be raised and spent. On a parallel track, McGahn and his allies drove changes in the way the commission did business, especially concerning how they punished — or didn’t punish — political actors suspected of violating federal rules and regulations.
“Whether you agreed with him or not he was a force to reckon with,” said Petersen, who was appointed to the agency at the same time as McGahn and allied with him throughout his tenure.
A force? Yes. A positive force? No, says former FEC general counsel Lawrence M. Noble, who is now general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that was often at odds with McGahn.
“His impact on the agency was to continue moving the agency down the road to where it is today, which is a non-enforcement agency,” Noble said, adding that McGahn was continually questioning “long-standing interpretations of the law and saying he would not go along with it.”
But Michael Toner, a former FEC chairman who is now co-chair of the election law practice at Wiley Rein, praised McGahn as a “forceful advocate” who “really was a driving force in shaping” the FEC’s post-Citizens United form.
“He served at a time when there were a lot of changes in the judicial landscape … and the FEC had to grapple with how to proceed, to be blunt," Toner said.
The FEC today, three years after McGahn’s departure, is known as a reluctant enforcer. The six commissioners, three backed by each political party, are frequently gridlocked and often at each other’s throats, and the agency is fighting low staff morale. Fines assessed by the agency fell from a high of $6.71 million in fiscal year 2006 to less than $1 million in 2015.
Just like his high-profile client, Trump, McGahn is an iconoclastic lightning rod, not known for backing away from a brawl or breaking bread with opponents afterwards.
“I would never have characterized him as a go-along, get-along guy,” said Ken Jones, a friend and former colleague of McGahn’s at the law firm Patton Boggs and a former lawyer for both the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in 2000.
During McGahn’s tenure at the FEC, he was a frequent target for watchdog groups who said he was crippling the FEC’s ability to enforce the law and destroying morale among the agency’s staff through his reluctance to proceed with enforcement cases. Noble once described him as a commissioner who “did his best to make the FEC dysfunctional.”