One evening last November, Don McGahn, the top lawyer in the Trump White House, walked onstage in an opulent ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. He looked out at the audience of several hundred judges, lawyers, clerks and law students seated under a pair of glittering chandeliers that hung from a ceiling accented in gold. McGahn, who rarely gives interviews or speeches, had come to speak at the annual conference of the Federalist Society, the powerful network of conservative lawyers, and the occasion felt like a homecoming and a victory lap.
Over the past two decades — including five years serving on the Federal Election Commission — McGahn has become an ideological warrior battling what he sees as the tyranny of the federal government. He parlayed his campaign-finance expertise into a job as Donald Trump’s lawyer. After the election, Trump rewarded McGahn with the job of White House counsel, a perch from which McGahn has spearheaded the administration’s unprecedented campaign to reshape the American judicial system, filling courts with judges who share Trump’s goals of dismantling environmental protection, rolling back civil and reproductive rights, and gutting labor laws — in other words, destroying the so-called administrative state. “These efforts to reform the regulatory state begin with Congress and the executive branch,” McGahn said in his speech, “but they ultimately depend on courts.”
On the campaign trail, Trump told evangelicals and other wavering Republicans they had no choice but to vote for him: “You know why? Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges.” He talked about judges nonstop and even released a list of 21 potential Supreme Court picks that he had gathered with the help of the Federalist Society and the archconservative Heritage Foundation. He would enter office with the most judicial vacancies since Bill Clinton — largely thanks to Republican filibustering of Obama’s nominees — and his administration has filled those vacancies as fast as possible.
As of this writing, Trump has put 26 new judges onto the appellate courts, more than any other chief executive at this point in the presidency. He has also nominated over 100 district-court judges and gotten 26 of those picks confirmed. These judges are overwhelmingly young, ideological and now set to serve lifetime appointments. And then, of course, there’s Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first pick for the Supreme Court, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s second Supreme Court nominee, who stands a strong chance of confirmation. “Whatever anyone wants to say about President Trump, he was very explicit about which judges he wanted, and he’s gone about appointing them,” says Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “He made a promise and they’re keeping it.”