Bush Picks Reagan White House Counsel Fielding to Succeed Miers

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

President Bush has selected Fred F. Fielding to be his White House counsel, recruiting a seasoned Washington veteran to represent the president with Democratic congressional investigators and reprise the job he held under Ronald Reagan, sources close to the process said yesterday.

The White House plans to announce the appointment today, just days after longtime Bush loyalist Harriet Miers was eased out as the president's top lawyer in preparation for the anticipated struggle with a new Democratic Congress eager to investigate the administration. A White House official confirmed the appointment but insisted on anonymity because it has not been announced.

Fielding, 67, brings the experience and political heft that White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has been seeking to counter any aggressive moves to probe the most controversial decisions of the Bush presidency. Smooth and soft-spoken yet battle-hardened, Fielding is considered a Republican "wise man" who Bush aides believe will be able to negotiate compromise without surrendering on the most important priorities.

"It sends the perfect signal that we are serious about the president's position and the principles he has articulated but we're also going to be reasonable and work together to get some of these issues resolved," said Helgi C. Walker, a former Bush White House associate counsel who works with Fielding at his firm, Wiley Rein & Fielding. "He brings stature and gravitas, and he also brings a very healthy perspective, the ability to prioritize in crafting a settlement."

Fielding served as deputy to White House counsel John W. Dean III under President Richard M. Nixon and was the first to tell Dean about the Watergate break-in. Yet Fielding was one of the few to emerge untainted by Watergate. In fact, he was suspected, wrongly, of being "Deep Throat," the inside source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the scandal.

Fielding served as White House counsel for Reagan from 1981 to 1986, handling a spate of conflict-of-interest situations and telling Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig he was wrong to assert that he had command authority when the president was shot. Fielding was Bush's transition counsel after the 2000 election, vetting the backgrounds of new administration officials. And he served as a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Fred will be a formidable person to deal with," said Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, a Watergate prosecutor who served with Fielding on the Sept. 11 commission. "This change reflects the understanding by the president and his advisers in the administration that they will be in for a much more robust period of congressional oversight."

Ben-Veniste said Fielding sometimes played intermediary with the White House in conflicts over the release of information to the commission. "At times, Fred was somewhat dismayed by the positions taken by White House counsel and other agencies," Ben-Veniste said. "But by the same token, he was someone with whom the White House was in frequent contact."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he does not know Fielding but understands that "he has a very distinguished record." Waxman, who plans to begin hearings on Feb. 6 into waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq contracting, said, "I hope he advises the president on ways to work with Congress."

The move to bring back a White House counsel from another era is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's decision in the midst of the Whitewater investigation in 1994 to hire Lloyd N. Cutler as his chief lawyer, many years after Cutler served in the same position under President Jimmy Carter. Like Clinton, Bush is reaching out to a pillar of the Washington establishment in hopes of tamping down political troubles.

In Bush's case, he faces congressional demands for information on politically sensitive topics such as whether officials authorized the abuse of U.S.-held detainees, whether the administration turned a blind eye to profiteering by politically connected contractors in the Iraq war, how the White House responded to Hurricane Katrina and whether senior officials complied with the law in ordering heightened domestic surveillance. The White House counsel also monitors staff ethics issues and screens judicial nominations, including potential Supreme Court justices.

"Fred Fielding's been in the White House before and he understands how the place works, which is very important," said Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, who informally advises the White House on legal matters. "He understands how the Hill works, which is important. And he has widespread respect from all points on the spectrum."

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