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McGahn's push to reshape the judiciary

White House counsel Donald McGahn made one thing clear to those who have worked closely with him in recent weeks: He wasn't going anywhere.

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Ariane de Vogue (CNN Supreme Court Reporter)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — White House counsel Donald McGahn made one thing clear to those who have worked closely with him in recent weeks: He wasn't going anywhere.

But that confidence grew more complicated Thursday night after the explosive revelation that Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last summer and backed down only after McGahn threatened to quit. For a President loathe to be challenged by staff, the publicity surrounding McGahn's threat could leave him subject to Trump's ire.

McGahn declined to comment for this story. At the White House on Friday, there seemed to be no change in his mood, according to an official.

As the Russia investigation plays out, McGahn has taken a long view toward policy issues that he thinks could serve as legacy issues for Trump. He recently met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley about installing more conservatives in the judiciary. He's taken a keen interest in deregulatory issues.

His drive to reshape the judiciary has fueled him during the tumult of the past year. McGahn, McConnell and Grassley have moved with lightning speed to place conservatives at all levels of the judiciary. Grassley announced at the end of last term that they had broken records by confirming 12 nominees for federal appeals courts.

"In a year when legislative victories were hard to come by, the 'judicial wave' of 2017 was a very important benchmark for political success," Leonard Leo, who serves as an outside adviser on judicial selections, wrote in Newsweek on Wednesday. "And, looking ahead to the rest of 2018, it is likely to become the GOP leadership's case-in-chief for redoubling unified and intense action on the many federal judicial nominees the President still has to nominate."

McGahn has his hands in many pots at the White House, one source said. But ever since the early days of Trump's campaign, he's viewed reshaping the judiciary as the President's most lasting legacy.

The effort has not been without controversy.

Late last year, three nominees had to remove their names from Senate confirmation, raising questions about the strength of McGahn's vetting operation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said at the time that she hoped the White House had learned a lesson and would slow down.

But no one hit pause.

In December, the White House released a new slate of judges including several more seasoned jurists than the controversial nominees that the administration had to withdraw. On Wednesday, Grassley gaveled in hearings for Michael Brennan for the 7th Circuit. McConnell also announced this week that the Senate will hold a cloture vote for Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras to the 8th Circuit.

And McGahn and other Republicans aren't just focusing on lower court judges. They are carefully watching the Supreme Court to see if Justice Anthony Kennedy or another one of the justices might retire. Kennedy has hired clerks for next term, and sources say that the White House has received no signal whether the 81-year-old justice has plans to step down.

But that doesn't stop the planning. According to two sources, Kennedy has told at least one clerk in the hiring process that retirement is always a possibility. Although the fact that Kennedy has hired clerks seems to strongly suggest he's not ready to hang up his robes yet, a retirement announcement in April would not be unprecedented. Top on the list of possible replacements would be former Kennedy clerks Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Judge Raymond Kethledge, and also under consideration are Judge Thomas Hardiman, Judge Amy Coney Barrett and Judge Joan Larsen.

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