GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Ex-White House counsel Don McGahn is an Atlantic City native whose uncle, Patrick J. “Paddy” McGahn, was a legendary A.C. attorney and power broker who famously tangled with an old client, then-casino mogul Donald Trump.

Don McGahn’s loyalty to their shared client appears to run deeper. He told a friendly hometown crowd at Stockton University on Thursday, his mother, Noreen, in the audience, his friend Bill Hughes Jr. doing the questioning, that even as a private citizen those obligations continue.

“It’s really unchanged obligations,” McGahn said.

At Trump’s direction, McGahn continues to defy a subpoena issued by House Democrats as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

A federal judge ruled in November that McGahn must testify, rejecting the Trump administration’s claim of “absolute immunity.” The Department of Justice has appealed the case, with a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit expected in the near future.

Thursday, McGahn said the decision to testify was not his to make, even as a private citizen. Asked who should decide what his post-administration duties are — “You, the courts, or your former client” — McGahn said it was "ultimately not the job of a lawyer to be his own lawyer and decide whether or not he’s obligated to testify.

“It has to come from beyond,” he said. “Court orders ... are one potential decider.”

Former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn (left) with moderator William J. Hughes Jr., at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in Galloway Township, N.J. on Thursday. McGahn is an Atlantic County native with deep ties to the area.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn (left) with moderator William J. Hughes Jr., at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in Galloway Township, N.J. on Thursday. McGahn is an Atlantic County native with deep ties to the area.

House Judiciary Committee lawyers have maintained that McGahn’s testimony is central to their impeachment investigations into Trump and could potentially yield new articles of impeachment. McGahn was among the most heavily cited witnesses in the Mueller report, sitting for more than 30 hours of voluntary testimony before Mueller’s team investigating allegations of obstruction of justice.

McGahn’s local roots were on display Thursday, a tub of Johnson’s Popcorn on the table next to him, and jokes about his default Jersey sarcasm. Paddy McGahn helped bring casino gambling to Atlantic City in 1979 and represented Trump for years before their falling-out.

His nephew said he thinks that the dispute was more between Trump managers than with Trump himself, and that it wasn’t a factor when he was approached to represent first the Trump campaign, and later serve as White House counsel. (Trump and Paddy McGahn sued each other, Trump alleging Paddy McGahn overbilled him, McGahn saying he was owed money.)

Don McGahn was not paid to speak, said Stockton spokesperson Diane D’Amico. He appeared at the request of Hughes, the son of the former (Democratic) congressman and ambassador and namesake of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, which sponsored the appearance.

McGahn spoke at length about his commitment to conservative judicial principles, his decision to work for the Trump campaign “win,” the “disgrace” of the Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and how he ended up being the architect of an overhaul of the federal judiciary, overseeing 107 judicial nominations, including 40 Appeals Court judges.

He noted that New Jersey’s overworked federal courts have had no federal judicial nominees because its two Democratic senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, refused to go along with any of his suggestions. He called New Jersey an “outlier,” and said he had managed to make judicial appointment agreements with Democrats in other states, including New York.

Hughes began the conversation with what sounded as if it might be a question about the impeachment trial in D.C., or even about the actions of the president, describing a divided country where one side thought “it was necessary," the other side saying ... "it was rash, that an institution is in jeopardy.”

But the question was a bluff, and Hughes ended by asking about Harry and Meghan stepping away from their royal duties.

McGahn parried the joke with his own laugh line.

“I heard she called the queen and she thought it was a perfect call,” he said.