A profile of Bob Bauer: Is this the counsel Obama keeps?

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; C01

Here's the problem the White House gave Bob Bauer to fix last weekend: Go make peace between antiabortion Democrats and pro-choice Democrats, the gruff Michigander Bart Stupak and the formidable rules maven Louise Slaughter, and also the bishops and the nuns. And get it all on paper!

Bauer is the president's in-house counsel, but on tense occasions like creating sweeping, historic omnibus legislation, he's more than that. Bauer came to the rescue of the health-care negotiations, and his political skills were as much on display as his legal ones, not to mention his diplomatic and nurturing ones.

Bauer, 58, shuttled between the White House and Capitol Hill with drafts of an executive order banning federal funding of abortion, spending two days in tense talks with Rep. Stupak and other Catholic Democrats who were vital to the coalition that would pass President Obama's reform package. When he wasn't getting food for his own staff, he talked with the lawmakers, he joked with them, he listened to them, but mostly he got them to agree.

Bauer knew several of the Democrats through his years as a campaign lawyer and assured them the executive order he brandished was not a trick. "He was very patient," Stupak said. "Members asked some questions that, for us lawyers, were pretty basic. But he would say, 'Congressman, that's a good question,' and go through and explain it." Bauer's role in the outcome was, Stupak said, "extremely critical."

Whether Bauer will thrive -- or even survive -- as White House counsel will depend in part on his ability to sustain that level of diplomacy in the months ahead. His allies are encouraged so far, and one friend noted that Bauer's first major executive order was part of a politically savvy compromise, in contrast with another ambitious executive order drafted by his predecessor, Greg Craig, ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year. That one was ultimately doomed.

The office Bauer inhabits, while coveted, has become a career graveyard in recent years, bogging down a string of lawyers as they tried to square controversial administration ideas with the law and political reality. When Craig was pushed out of the counsel's office last fall, it was, in part, because critics had concluded that the Guantanamo order was ill-advised and lacked political support. More dramatically, Alberto Gonzales was lashed for his role in the George W. Bush administration's policies on torture, detention and secrecy, and is now, despite his stature as a former attorney general, teaching a single class on politics at Texas Tech University. Harriet Miers, who succeeded Gonzales as White House counsel, left the year after her 2006 nomination to the Supreme Court collapsed.

"The first objective of being a White House counsel is to preserve the good reputation you had before you went into the job," said lawyer Jan Baran, a longtime friend of Bauer. "It's a career-ender."

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For Bauer, whose expertise is elections law, health care may be among his easier assignments. He has inherited a vast national security portfolio that has become the core of the counsel's work since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His office addresses so many complex and unprecedented international questions -- including the legality of capturing or killing terrorists abroad, intervening in cyberattacks, and holding suspects indefinitely -- that people who work with Bauer said he now spends as much as half of his time on national security. It's an abrupt departure for a man who just two years ago was challenging campaign finance regulations and monitoring Texas precincts for Obama.

His biggest burden: where the government should try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Bauer started the job the month after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a civilian trial in New York -- a brazen decision that has since been dropped. Now, Bauer is trying to think bigger and consider all Guantanamo detainees and suspected terrorists captured abroad in one proposal, rather than case by case. That "Grand Bargain" may include new legislation, which the White House had previously said it would not seek.

But Bauer, like his predecessors, also manages an unpredictable whack-a-mole caseload, with new headaches every day. Is this or that White House proposal constitutional? Who should be the next Supreme Court nominee? Is this or that White House employee violating strict ethics policies? Bauer has imposed some changes on the judicial nominating process, both accelerating the pace and trying to be politically strategic about when vacancies are filled. His colleagues said his particular skills are recommending not just what is legal but also realistic and, in the words of one, "giving the president options."

Bauer declined to be interviewed, and several administration officials agreed to talk about him only if they were not identified. White House officials said he does not plan to grant media requests for profiles of him during his tenure. (He is married to a former White House communications director, Anita Dunn, who is now a public relations executive. They live with their son, and Bauer has three children from a previous marriage.)

In his first three months, at least, Bauer has impressed White House officials, challenging participants during senior staff meetings and immersing himself in day-to-day details. "He's more granular in terms of his involvement," one senior Obama adviser said, when asked for a comparison with Craig. Another official likened Bauer to an "early warning system."

Craig's defenders contend that he was wrongly blamed for the political missteps that followed the Guantanamo executive order, arguing that other offices at the White House -- such as the legislative affairs shop -- should have been held responsible for failing to manage the congressional mood. Many credit Craig for his commitment to the difficult cause of shutting down the prison. Craig could not be reached for comment.

One prominent Democratic lawyer said that Bauer may ultimately fare no better than Craig at trying to undo the tangle of terrorism cases left by the Bush administration.

"You can't see the White House counsel's office as just a law firm," the lawyer said. "It is a media, legal and political position, all three. Experience has shown Bauer is a brilliant lawyer, but he knows nothing about the other two legs of that stool, and in the White House counsel's office, that is a disaster."

For now, however, Bauer's changes have gone over well, starting with his personnel moves. To replace deputy counsel Cassandra Butts, an Obama loyalist who left around the same time as Craig (after a similarly rocky tenure), Bauer brought in three new lawyers: Kathy Ruemmler, an experienced litigator who prosecuted the Enron case and was most recently at the Justice Department; Kate Andrias, a former associate at Perkins Coie; and Don Verrilli, a former appellate attorney at the Justice Department. In particular, the "Kate-Kathy team," as colleagues refer to it, is structured to keep Bauer from getting overwhelmed by the day-to-day flood of requests. And he has been mindful of internal politics: One of Bauer's first moves was to go for beers with deputy counsel Daniel Meltzer, a key Craig hire, to ask him to stay. (He did.)

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In more than a dozen interviews with current and former colleagues, a portrait of a pragmatic, inquisitive adviser emerged. Bearded and talkative, with a quick smile and a tendency to pause before talking, Bauer is frequently described as thoughtful. He is not to be confused with iconic go-it-alone government swashbuckler Jack Bauer -- Bob tends to his team. During the health-care negotiations last weekend, for instance, he walked to the Potbelly near the White House to buy his staff chocolate chip cookies and potato chips.

His mischievous sense of humor is well documented, even in instances that could be misinterpreted. As an Obama operative, for instance, he ambushed a Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign conference call by dialing in as a reporter and disputing the Clinton officials' claims about arcane caucuses in Texas. Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, a former Bauer client, got the joke and responded by spelling Bauer's name for reporters.

He is also known for his appreciation of puns. Bauer and senior adviser David Axelrod have frequently engaged in e-mail wordplay exchanges, including one during the campaign that lasted so long and elicited such groans from the other recipients that Robert Gibbs, now White House press secretary, finally implored, according to one person's recollection: "PLEASE STOP THIS NOW."

But while he likes to joke, he also is not known for backing down. In conjunction with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Bauer has been deeply involved in negotiations with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in pursuit of a framework for detaining suspects and also shutting down Guantanamo.

More than once, a senior administration official said, Bauer has urged White House advisers to rethink the entire issue of detainees. He often repeats that his goal is to come up with alternatives for Obama, giving his client new options for where to try Mohammed and how to manage the cases of other captured suspected terrorists. In contrast with Craig, a vocal advocate for the closure, Bauer is portrayed by others in the White House as trying to figure out what is legally possible.

"Bob is coming at this as a staffer who is implementing a vision, who is making sure the president has and understands fully what are his choices," Gibbs said. "The president obviously has a keen legal mind, but what Bob does is give him the landscape of his choices and a full understanding of all that's at stake."

An official involved in detainee policy who was a close ally of Craig said it is too soon to assess Bauer's tenure. "The real test will be the shape of this deal, if there is a deal, with Graham," the official said. "I'm all for making deals. But not for surrender."

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