By Anne E. Kornblut and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff writer
Friday, November 13, 2009 11:30 AM
TOKYO -- White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig will step down from his post and be replaced by Bob Bauer, a prominent Democratic lawyer who is President Obama's personal attorney, the White House said Friday.
The departure is the highest-level White House shake-up since Obama took office in January. It comes after months of dissatisfaction over Craig's management of the closure of the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other matters, and less than a month after officials said Craig was no longer guiding the effort to close the prison.
White House officials nevertheless praised Craig for laying the groundwork for the closure and for guiding the nomination and confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Greg Craig is a close friend and trusted advisor who tackled many tough challenges as White House Counsel," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Because of Greg's leadership, we have confirmed the first Latina justice on the Supreme Court, set the toughest ethics standards for any administration in history, and ensured that we are keeping the nation secure in a manner that is consistent with our laws and our values."
Bauer, currently a partner at Perkins Coie, will begin his new job by year's end, the White House said. Obama's statement said Bauer is "well-positioned to lead the Counsel's office as it addresses a wide variety of responsibilities, including managing the large amount of litigation the administration inherited, identifying judicial nominees for the federal courts, and assuring that White House officials continue to be held to the highest legal and ethical standards."
The announcement that Craig will leave coincides with a long-awaited Justice Department decision to transfer the prosecutions of five high-profile Guantanamo Bay detainees linked to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- including Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- to federal court in New York.
As a lawyer for House Democrats during their time in the minority, Bauer pursued an aggressive legal strategy aimed at undercutting the GOP's political advantages. In 2000, Bauer, in his capacity as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's attorney, filed a racketeering lawsuit against Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), then the House majority whip, and three affiliated political groups, charging that DeLay had engaged in extortion and money laundering.
The two parties reached a settlement a year later in which both sides claimed victory, but Bauer argued that the Democrats had effectively neutralized one of the GOP's most effective fundraising methods.
"We shut it down," Bauer said at the time. "There is no DeLay shadow network. We didn't have to worry about it in 2000, and we don't have to worry about it in 2002."
DeLay called the lawsuit, which cost him more than $450,000 in legal fees, "nothing more than a desperate political ploy to win back the House."
Shortly after Bauer's appointment was announced, Republicans began to raise questions about the propriety of a president's personal lawyer serving as White House counsel. One described the move as a serious housecleaning of the White House counsel's office.
Craig had once hoped for a post in the Obama administration conducting foreign policy. But when that job did not materialize, and Obama asked Craig to serve as counsel, Craig felt he could not refuse, people close to him said.
Before the release of Craig's letter to Obama stating he would return to private practice, some White House officials had said they expected him to receive a judicial appointment or diplomatic posting.
Craig, a respected lawyer whose storied career includes representing President Bill Clinton during his Senate impeachment trial, became one of the earliest Clinton allies to support the Obama campaign during the 2008 race. At the height of the campaign, he penned a memo sharply criticizing then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy credentials, a reflection of how passionately he cared about international relations.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied that Craig's exit was related to Guantanamo and noted that Craig had never sought to serve as the administration lawyer.
"Greg is, as you know, somebody who served in a previous administration in foreign policy. That's his passion," Gibbs said. He called Craig a "reluctant acceptor" of the counsel position who had never expected to stay long.
Craig did not return a phone call placed to his house Thursday night. In a letter to Obama released by the White House, he said he was honored to have worked for the administration and would return to private practice Jan. 3.
As White House counsel, Craig tried to influence some initiatives he cared most about, including reversing the Bush-era detainee policies. He took the job of closing the Guantanamo prison so seriously that when Bermuda agreed to take several detainees, Craig personally flew with them to the island.
But just a few months in office left Craig disenchanted with the political process, and some senior White House officials frustrated with the operations of the counsel's office. Some critics pointed to mistakes along the way, including the administration's failure to anticipate congressional opposition to closing the detention facility.
White House officials have conceded they will not make the January closure deadline that Craig helped Obama settle on and are at a loss as to where to house a number of hard cases who cannot be transferred to foreign countries or tried in U.S. civilian or military courts.
And there were other problems in his path. The vetting of nominees, a job typically overseen by the counsel's office, did not go well at first. Craig never quite penetrated the president's inner circle of advisers, despite his close personal relationship with Obama. And his high-profile role in the Guantanamo struggle made him an easy target, according to defenders of his who said he should not have been held responsible for the politics of such a thorny issue.
His allies praised him for trying to keep Obama in sync with some of the ideologically liberal ideas he promoted in the campaign.