The White House's Lanny Breuer Wins Points for Integrity From Both SidesBy Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 1997; Page B01
Senate Republican staffers were grilling President Clinton's secretary about the fund-raising scandal, and the White House lawyer everyone calls Lanny kept objecting to the questions.
Finally, the Republican counsel had had enough and ordered him out of the closed-door deposition.
"I'm not leaving," said Lanny, who had no legal right to be there. The staffers insisted; Lanny refused to budge, and the committee eventually gave in.
A careful reader of newspapers and magazines might assume the attorney was Lanny Davis, the voluble, much-publicized spinmeister for the president's legal team. But it was the Other Lanny, the all-but-invisible special counsel Lanny Breuer, who insiders say has become the backbone of the damage control effort, playing defense on the fund-raising and Whitewater investigations.
In Washington, where clout is often measured in column inches and talk show appearances, those who pull the strings in relative obscurity are often overlooked. If history is written by the victors, daily journalism is often shaped by those who utter the sound bites and whisper to reporters.
Breuer, by contrast, deliberately stays below the radar. When he sits behind an important Senate witness, as he did last week when national security adviser Sandy Berger testified in the fund-raising probe, he keeps out of camera range. When he talks to reporters, it's usually on a not-for-attribution basis.
"If they wanted someone high-profile, they wouldn't have hired me in the first place," he says. "I don't want to make myself a lightning rod. . . . Plenty of reporters say, `Oh yeah, you're the other Lanny.' "
But the insiders all know his name. In recent days, Breuer was one of the first White House officials to learn of Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to launch a preliminary probe of Clinton's fund-raising practices. By yesterday he was back in the Senate, sitting in on a second deposition of Harold Ickes, the former White House operative who rode herd on campaign fund-raising.
A bespectacled New Yorker with a self-effacing, Woody Allenish demeanor, Breuer, 39, is easy to underestimate. He has no sense of direction, constantly gets lost and keeps misplacing his cell phone. But even many Republicans give him high marks.
"Lanny seems to be a pretty honor able guy, a pretty straight shooter who's just a good advocate for his clients," says a GOP congressional investigator who declined to be identified because of the probe's sensitivity.
Says Ken Ballen, a Democratic counsel to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee: "Lanny's got a very personal style. He puts his integrity and his word out there personally, and he keeps it. You're not just dealing with the White House, you're dealing with a person."
White House counselor Doug Sosnik puts it this way: "He's perceived as an honest broker among all sides. He doesn't come in and suck all the oxygen out of the room, but he wears very well."
But others say Breuer, who manages a team of seven attorneys, has little feel for partisan combat. "He's a terrible manager and he has zero political instincts," one administration official says. Breuer wasted endless hours in depositions of minor White House aides that could have been handled by subordinates while he concentrated on the Senate hearings, this person says.
Breuer's explanation is simple: "I wanted to show the flag. I wanted people to know that I care."
A former prosecutor and seasoned litigator, Breuer makes no secret of his lack of experience in dealing with Congress. "I try to be straight with people," he says. "I'm the first to talk about my weaknesses. I don't think I'm politically adept. It's not like I'm some great political strategist. I'm good at bridging different opinions and coming up with a consensus."
Breuer has his fingers in a whole bunch of dikes. He is deluged with demands for information from Senate and House committees, the Justice Department, independent counsel Kenneth Starr and, of course, the press. He runs a daily damage control meeting with top White House officials that hammers out the line of the day. Part of the ongoing debate is when to release documents, when to leak material and when to assert executive privilege.
When the White House belatedly discovered documents involving Macao businessman Ng Lap Seng shortly after the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee examined Ng's ties to Clinton fund-raiser Charlie Trie, it was Breuer who had to give the panel the news. Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) promptly accused the administration of stonewalling.
Asked about the Republican charge that the administration is deliberately dragging its feet in producing documents, Breuer says: "It is utterly baseless." Then he really ratchets up the rhetoric: "It is utterly, completely baseless."
Breuer has ways of dealing with the opposition. When Senate Republicans threatened to exclude him from certain depositions, he said he would simply stand outside the room and consult with the witness all day long. "He's got a large bag of tools he presses, he argues, he wheedles, he charms, he defers, he nags," says Jeff Robbins, deputy chief counsel for Democrats on the Thompson committee.
The two Lannys often disagree. Lanny Davis, a onetime congressional candidate from Montgomery County, has become a constant media presence, defending Democratic fund-raising practices or dismissing this or that allegation as old news. Lanny Breuer, who is nominally Davis's boss, must give the green light before Davis can appear on television or peddle a particular line to the press.
But Davis is one of his colleague's biggest boosters. "Aside from having a fine-tuned legal mind, his greatest talent is that he observes people, takes their measure, understands what part of them he can work with and finds a way to depersonalize the disagreement," Davis says. "I once said to him, `You ought to be a marriage counselor.' "
Breuer unwittingly uses the same analogy in describing Davis: "I feel sometimes like I'm married to the guy."
In a bizarre coincidence, both men are named for Lanny Budd, a crusading editor who battled the Nazis in a series of Upton Sinclair novels. Breuer's wall in the Old Executive Office Building features a framed 1958 letter from Sinclair to his father about the choice of name.
Breuer's Austrian dad and German mom were both Jewish refugees from World War II who settled in Queens. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Breuer worked for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, prosecuting cases involving everything from police corruption to Asian organized crime. A lowlight of those years: Breuer prosecuted a man busted for eating plants in Central Park, a case that was ridiculed by Johnny Carson.
Breuer and his wife, Nancy, moved to Washington eight years ago. She became associate general counsel of the National Gallery of Art; he joined the blue-chip firm of Covington & Burling, which also happened to be the firm of Charles Ruff, now the White House counsel. Breuer built up a typical white-collar practice and eventually made partner. One of his few moments in the limelight came when he successfully sued the Clinton administration on behalf of an openly gay Marine who had run afoul of Pentagon rules.
Former White House counsel Jack Quinn recruited Breuer after recommendations from Ruff and other lawyers. "I wanted someone who'd check his or her ego at the door and was interested in doing the hard work of managing the legal staff," Quinn said.
After joining the White House early this year, Breuer says, "I was terrified. I'd never done anything like this. I don't want to be corny, but I felt unbelievably honored."
Ruff, who became Breuer's boss, jokingly calls him "the only thing keeping my head above the roiling waters. I take great pride in the fact that I stole him from my former law firm. I knew what his style was and how hard he worked. I knew people would view him as a consummate professional."
Breuer sounds as though he can't believe his own good fortune. He's part of the legal team that briefs President Clinton before press appearances; he recently flew to California to prepare former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta for a deposition. "For me, it's just unbelievable, the idea I'm meeting with Leon Panetta," Breuer says.
But there have been low moments as well. Breuer was depressed when negotiations with the House Government Reform Committee broke down and Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) threatened to hold Ruff in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over fund-raising documents.
"I really, truly took it to heart," Breuer says. "I felt on some level maybe I had let him down."
While Breuer clearly has a quieter style than Lanny Davis, he can also shout with the best of them.
"When there's lots of pressure and his plate is full, he can be snappish," Davis says. "He certainly has been with me. Given the incredible pressure he's under and the tugs and pulls on him, it's amazing to me that it's so rare."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company