White House Counsel: Craig Out, Bauer In

Sources in government say that White House Counsel Gregory Craig has decided to resign, and that the president's personal lawyer, Robert Bauer, will take his place.  A formal announcement is slated for next week, though word might drop Friday. The official changeover won't happen until next year.

The move has been in the works for more than a month, the decision to move on was mutual, and the announcement was delayed while the White House waited out a spate of negative press stories about Craig.

Craig is highly regarded by his colleagues for having a top-flight legal and tactical mind. And he is a veteran of the White House, having served as chief counsel to President Clinton during impeachment. He spent decades in private practice, had five years experience as chief national security counsel to Ted Kennedy and served on Madeleine Albright's policy planning staff at the State Department.

Presiding over the largest White House counsel's office in recent memory, Craig has, according to even his allies, not displayed the best managerial skills. Even a job like the counsel becomes an inherently political position, and requires its occupant to have a broad understanding of how to engage stakeholders across the government. Craig was seen by some of his detractors as too inwardly focused. None of these demerits are firing offenses.

But the perception that Craig was not successful -- a false perception, according to his colleagues -- may have brought about a reality that made it hard for Craig to do his job.  Press reports that the President blamed Craig for forcing his hand on the closure of Guantanamo Bay are incorrect; Craig, in the president's view, has done yeoman's work and is responsible for helping to clean up an unprecedented legal, political, and moral mess left by the last administration.

But part of why Gitmo won't be closed in January is because Craig could not -- or would not -  crack skulls in the interagency process. It took the wily lawyering of Alberto Gonzales and David Addington to get Gitmo open, and it's going to take some of their skills -- wills of steel, political savvy, institutional savvy -- to get the thing closed.

Bauer is Chair of the Political Law Group of Perkins Coie LLP. He served as the Obama campaign's general counsel and became the President's private lawyer after the election. He is married to Anita Dunn, Obama's outgoing -- and exiting -- communications director. He has 30 years of experience in political, ethics and campaign law, and is perhaps the only senior White House official to have written his own blog -- Soft Money Hard Law -- which chronicles campaign and election law disputes.

Dunn, via e-mail, declined to comment; Bauer did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. A half dozen White House press spokespersons did not respond immediately to comment requests.

Bauer is politically savvy, having worked closely with most of the leading Democrats on Capitol Hill. He is expected to bring a deft touch to the counsel's office. In his writing and argumentation, he is a stylist of sorts, quick with metaphors and humorous quips. But by his own admission, he is not an expert on national security law, or on trade or tax law, or on administrative law. He will certainly rely on deputies -- and he'll get to choose at least some of them. Cassandra Butts, one of Craig's chief assistants, is departing for a position at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Bauer's lack of national security experience may weaken the White House's hand vis-a-vis other institutions, but his presence will strengthen White House influence on ethics policy, the appointments process, discussion of public financing legislation, and the administration's reaction to Supreme Court campaign finance cases.

Bauer's experience is in defending Congressional investigations and in dealing with Washington scandals, where Craig's s one dip in the pool --  impeachment -- was actually the one scandal-related process in the U.S. system that is more like litigation than like investigation defense.  Bauer is more a rough-and-tumble defense guy.  So far, the White House has had no need for that sort of work -- but sooner or later, every White House does.
"Bob's expertise in election law isn't just relevant so we can write great briefs in litigation.  As we enter 2010, having clear rules of the road on what the White House and its staff can and cannot do to help Democratic candidates will become a critical aspect of the White House Counsel's job -- and there's no lawyer in America who knows that better than Bob," a senior administration official said.   "Such skill is even more critical as we approach 2012 -- and -- here's the wild card -- if the Supreme Court does major violence to the campaign finance regulation regime (as most observers expect by June), then deciding how to try to rewrite those laws, or what to do in the wild west regime that will replace current law, will be a critical task.  And who better to have on point than Bob Bauer."