A Slow-Burning Departure For Gregory Craig

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Why was Gregory Craig, the departing White House counsel, allowed to twist in the wind for so long? For a month, it's been an open secret in Washington that Craig was on his way out. Five weeks ago, a senior administration official, speaking to me on an off-the-record basis, offered a tip that Craig would resign around Thanksgiving and would be replaced by the president's personal lawyer, Robert Bauer. A number of journalists reported having similar conversations.

For a White House that prides itself on mitigating the effects of internal drama, the Craig resignation is a real failure. It's left many Craig allies -- inside and outside of government -- angry with the president's top advisers. They accuse these advisers, primarily the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, of orchestrating a public whispering campaign designed to force Craig to resign. Implicitly, the thinking goes, no one in the White House had the -- gumption -- to fire Craig to his face.

It is true that Craig and Emanuel did not always see eye to eye. It was Craig's importuning that may have convinced the president to release Bush-era Justice Department memoranda that sanctioned torture.

"This is what you were elected to do," Craig told the president in one Oval Office meeting.

Emanuel worried about the political repercussions of a first-term young Democratic president who would appear to be thumbing the eyes of the national security establishment. Craig won the round.

Obama retains an enormous affection for Craig, who bucked the Democratic establishment in the primary, and the president is, in some ways, a sucker for arguments that draw back to the reasons why he decided to run for office in the first place. Craig is an idealist.

But the story doesn't end there. Emanuel and Craig worked together quite well on other projects. And Craig even borrowed a page from Emanuel's own handbook for resisting pressure from leaks that he would resign: Craig decided to try and wait it out, just as Emanuel did, more successfully, in the Clinton White House after the 1994 midterm elections.

As early as the beginning of the summer, it was clear to the President that the counsel's office was poorly managed. Craig had focused intently on several issues close to his heart, like the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and did not bring his authority to bear in others, like presidential personnel nominations, cross-executive branch ethics enforcement and congressional relations.

Moreover, senior staff -- and the president -- kept finding themselves surprised. "We would open the newspaper and find something that Greg should have told us about," one administration official who is sympathetic to Craig said.

They were surprised when Eric Holder, the attorney general, decided to appoint a prosecutor to review interrogation files. It wasn't so much that they disagreed with the decision -- Holder's independence is something that the White House grudgingly accepts as necessary and proper -- it was that Craig wasn't in the loop. He had not taken the time to build himself up as an institutional figure who the attorney general wouldn't dare avoid briefing before acting.

The White House was also dissatisfied with Craig's handling of political appointments, believing that Craig should have spent more time working with the Justice Department and with Congress to force through some of the president's most eagerly awaited principals, like Dawn Johnsen, whose nomination to be head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel still languishes. The issue of nominations is especially sensitive for the president, a constitutional law lecturer in his former life.

Management of the White House counsel staff had become such an acute problem over the summer that the president expected Craig to resign. When Craig did not resign -- and accounts differ as to why -- the president's staff appeared to be ready to give Craig a second chance -- to show up more prepared for briefings on non-national-security-related topics, for example. But in mid-September, Craig apparently got the message.

But he told reporters who asked him about it that he was not leaving. He did not want to be perceived as a lame duck. The result of his refusal to resign, the eagerness on behalf of some White House officials to push him out and the novelty of the situation all contributed to a scenario where Craig became weak because he was perceived as weak.

The notion that the president was dissatisfied with Craig's handling of the Guantanamo Bay closure has reached the level of an accepted urban myth, even though it is not true. This may be Craig's legacy -- and it may serve him well with his allies on the ideological left who are eager to portray his departure as evidence that Obama rejects a new national security paradigm.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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