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January 23, 2017

New Jersey's connections to the Trump White House

Attorney Don McGahn leads list of locals

New Jersey now has a roster of connections to the White House.

• There’s lawyer Don McGahn, an Atlantic City-area native described in a recent New York Times piece as potentially “one of the most powerful, if least known, figures in Mr. Trump’s inner circle.” He’ll serve as White House counsel, President Donald Trump’s chief in-house lawyer. (Joining McGahn as associate White House counsel is James Schultz, formerly of Cozen O’Connor, a Philly-based mega law firm with a strong presence in South Jersey.)

• Bill Stepien, former deputy chief of staff to one-time presidential contender Gov. Chris Christie, survived Bridgegate – mentioned nearly 700 times during the trial, but never charged – and is now Trump’s political director. He's known for loyalty, drive and organization.

• Most publicly, there is Kellyanne Conway, a pollster turned campaign manager who is now a counselor to Trump. Conway, who grew up and went to high school in Hammonton, South Jersey, has often served as the public face for the new administration. She made unwanted news over the weekend with her coinage of the phrase “alternative facts.” Her husband, George Conway, is a potential appointment as solicitor general. The couple lived in North Jersey.

• New Jersey-born Jared Kushner, an advocate for Stepien joining the Trump camp, has been cleared to serve as a senior White House adviser despite his status as a presidential son-in-law. Kushner, a real estate investor married to Ivanka Trump, owns development properties along the shore in Monmouth and Atlantic counties, as well as in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia.

• Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who owns property in Atlantic City, including the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal Casino, was considered at one point for treasury secretary. Icahn, who also owns the Tropicana in Atlantic City, instead will be Trump’s special adviser on regulatory reform.

Despite all of the “enormous power” now vested in the hands of these folks with New Jersey ties serving in the Trump Administration, Montclair State University professor Brigid Harrison on Monday said she doubts any of them will have have the ability to tilt policy on behalf of their home state.

Harrison, who grew up in South Jersey and went to the same high school as McGahn, said Trump’s tendency to “follow his own gut, sometimes at the expense of his staff’s suggestions,” makes that extremely unlikely.

But she is intrigued by McGahn and his link to Trump via his uncle, the late Paddy McGahn, a stalwart Democrat. The elder McGahn was a well-connected lawyer who emerged as a power broker in South Jersey and nationally.

Trump employed Paddy McGahn for years on casino, regulatory and land-use issues, though the two eventually scrapped over the lawyer's billings.

Don McGahn is a noted specialist in election law. He was the former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission under President George W. Bush. In the role, he favored lessening regulation. He had served as legal adviser to the Trump campaign.