And in the second term, when scandal and failure historically abound, Ruemmler has emerged as the protector of the presidency — and the focus of growing criticism of the White House’s insular and often secretive posture.
“She’s tenacious, tough, skilled and a good manager,” said David Plouffe, a longtime Obama political adviser who left the White House in January. He said she faces “intense crucibles.”
Ruemmler’s office is the response center for investigations of the White House, and it is she who negotiates with House Republicans exercising their subpoena and oversight powers. The 42-year-old lawyer sees her mission in part as keeping Obama and his top appointees out of their path.
Her role has made her office the focus of controversy in recent weeks over the White House’s handling of three incidents: the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the administration’s response to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records in leak investigations.
It was Ruemmler’s decision, for example, not to tell Obama about the findings of the inspector general’s audit of the IRS and to resist congressional demands to release drafts of talking points on last fall’s Benghazi attack on the grounds that it would violate executive privilege.
In the case of the IRS, Ruemmler — who got her first experience navigating scandal as a young associate in the White House counsel’s office in the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency — was shielding Obama from even the appearance of trying to influence the investigation, officials said.
Republicans aren’t buying it.
“The president claims openness and transparency, but that never, ever happens,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in an interview about relations with Ruemmler’s office. “Even when we ask the most basic questions, their standard operating procedure is they don’t respond.”
A ‘vote of confidence’
In 2011, when Obama had to replace White House counsel Robert F. Bauer, his longtime confidant who left to work on the reelection campaign, the president was looking for a lawyer who wouldn’t be afraid to give him candid advice, aides say. Bauer, who had recruited Ruemmler to be his deputy counsel a year earlier, believed that she fit the bill.
“At points I would throw out an idea, and she would say, ‘There’s no way in the world you’ll ever want to do that; that’s ridiculous,’ ” Bauer recalled. “There was no attempt, ever, by Kathy to put even light icing on the cake.”