By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009
After decades moving through the revolving door between the private sector and government service, Gregory B. Craig has landed again at the White House, serving as counsel to a young administration in need of a steadying hand.
Less than three weeks into his tenure, Craig has already played an outsize role in shaping the Obama administration. He safely guided the transition team through a scandal in which the governor of Illinois sought to auction off President Obama's old Senate seat. He produced the four executive orders that defined Obama's opening act in office -- overturning Bush-era rules on detention of enemy combatants and torture -- and has crafted or is in the process of drafting as many as 35 other such documents on Obama's behalf.
Now, amid a series of embarrassing personnel stumbles that have bogged down the administration's attempt to move swiftly to its legislative agenda, Craig is assuming control of the vetting process for nominees. That portfolio includes helping shepherd the next choice for secretary of health and human services, who will replace former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) after his decision to step aside because of tax problems, and making sure the nomination of Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) as labor secretary does not fall victim to the same fate after tax liens against her husband's business were revealed yesterday.
But his most important role, White House officials say, is as a trusted voice who has lived through the extremes of Washington controversies and has a keen eye for a potential conflict of interest or a decision that might trigger public outcry.
Though he is the senior lawyer, Craig, 63, has brought a youthful vigor into the counsel's office, where he is building, he said in an interview in his office yesterday, "the greatest new law firm on the face of the planet." He has been spotted at least once darting around the West Wing on a weekend afternoon in white corduroys, a blue fleece and loafers -- straight from a Tommy Hilfiger catalogue, one aide recalled.
But Craig's mission is among the most weighty in the White House. In addition to thoroughly revamping the government's approach to national security and the handling of those captured in the fight against terrorism, he is leading the search for judges and prosecutors nationwide (including 17 court of appeals and 30 district court vacancies, and all U.S. attorneys), monitoring the closure of detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and, in the days ahead, overseeing the vetting process.
He is in the process of helping clarify the ethics rules that Obama issued to fulfill his campaign promise of a more transparent government, explaining gift bans and other policies to the new staff. (He even had a hand in winning a waiver for the famed presidential BlackBerry, though he said it was an issue he would not discuss.)
In the interview, Craig said he believes he will be in control of the vetting process by the time the next HHS secretary is chosen. He described Daschle's withdrawal as a "massive disappointment" and said in referring to the next nominee: "Obviously, this is a priority of this president, to get it right."
But Craig -- whose résumé extends from representing President Bill Clinton during his impeachment to the cases of the Cuban father of Elian Gonzalez and the would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. -- stopped short of promising a drama-free administration.
"One can express the hope and the aspiration that there'll be no more problems, but I've been around long enough to know there's no way that assurance can be made with confidence," he said. "And actually, one of the excitements of this job, as well as the excitements of being a lawyer, is you're dealing with the unexpected all the time."
To that end, Craig is building a team of lawyers with prestigious backgrounds but a wide range of age and experience. "We're denying all allegations of empire-building," he said of his newly created counsel's office, responding to reports that it is bigger than those in the past and is stocked with aggressive partisans. "We're not a source of anything other than good lawyering."
What kind of lawyering Craig provides could help determine the kind of presidency Obama has. White House officials say that unlike the Bush administration, which was defined by the kind of secretive information-gathering that Alberto Gonzales approved as White House counsel, this administration will be looking to its counsel to steer it away from controversy.
"One thing we're not looking for in this White House is lawyers to tell us how to circumvent the rules," senior adviser David Axelrod said. "We want our lawyer to tell us when we're walking too close to the line."
In the constellation of Obama stalwarts within the West Wing, Craig occupies a unique space: A consummate Washington insider with extensive ties to the Clintons, he nonetheless sided with Obama early in the presidential primaries.
Craig seems to have been everywhere over the course of his career -- an adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); an adviser to former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright; an attorney, sometimes controversially, to foreign entities, many in Latin America.
Craig is clearly proud of his work on President Bill Clinton's impeachment -- framed relics from the 1998 Senate trial already hang on his West Wing wall -- but he denied widespread reports that he is estranged from both Clintons.
In the case of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- against whom Craig campaigned vigorously in the primaries, even authoring a foreign policy memo harshly criticizing her -- he said he has seen her four or five times in recent months as she has become a fixture of the administration.
"I've been in meetings with her. I've talked with her. We have a good working relationship," Craig said. "Things are in good shape. I have nothing worth saying about that." Although some Clinton loyalists had objected to the anti-Clinton memo he authored, he said he had intended it merely as an analysis of her work.
During the general election, Craig grew even more involved in the Obama operation, playing Sen. John McCain in debate preparations and often showing up armed with strategies for tripping up Obama. In the midst of an intense mock debate, officials said, Craig and Obama would sometimes burst out laughing.
"We'd have to lecture them on staying in character," Axelrod said. But beyond giving Obama a sparring partner, Axelrod said Craig fit naturally into the team as "an idealist who's got a lot of hard-bitten experience." Other White House officials said they were struck by how far Craig's reach extended -- describing him as a politically active lawyer who had a hand in national security, political issues and day-to-day events, establishing wide influence in just 2 1/2 weeks.
Describing his own mandate, Craig said a top priority is keeping track of how the recent executive orders are implemented. In particular, he said, he receives daily updates on the planning for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. He has also received feedback from the intelligence community about Obama's rules barring harsh interrogation techniques.
"I know for a fact already it's had an impact, because the intelligence community has accommodated their practices to comply with the executive order, and I've had real-world reporting about that," he said.