White House Counsel Irks Political Aides
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 1998; Page A01
Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's subpoena of President Clinton dominated the news all weekend. But at the White House senior staff meeting yesterday morning, not a word was raised about how the radioactive matter should be handled. And when the chance came for him to report on the legal response, White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff maintained his usual silence.
That the Clinton White House could be so consumed by a matter about which its top aides have so little operating knowledge underscores the uniquely powerful role played by Ruff, the fifth and longest-serving of Clinton's White House counsels.
As the first White House since the Nixon days learns to live under the cloud of potential impeachment, Ruff -- who served as Watergate special prosecutor two decades ago -- has become one of the few White House advisers in possession of information about the Monica S. Lewinsky matter that could be critical to the Clinton presidency.
"What used to be one of the most obscure staff jobs now has become a name that earns major Rush Limbaugh attention," said Vice President Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain.
Ruff -- who prosecuted illegal contributions to President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate -- took office in February 1997 in the midst of the firestorm over Clinton's 1996 campaign fund-raising. His background as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with long experience helping Democratic politicians to extricate themselves from messy situations has proved particularly relevant since Lewinsky became a household word.
But his tight-lipped stance has frustrated and angered many White House political aides who say the caution of the criminal defense lawyer is not the optimum strategy for maintaining the president's public standing.
While Ruff's calm and self-effacing manner has helped mitigate the personal rancor, one senior aide described "a palpable frustration, almost bordering on bitterness," over his lawyerly approach. "Chuck has a level of control over this that is unprecedented," one senior official said.
Ruff, 58, has been in the forefront of critical decisions by the White House to make broad assertions of executive privilege and attorney-client privilege to head off testimony in the Lewinsky probe -- arguments in which the White House yesterday again found itself on the losing end as a federal appeals court here rejected its contention that Clinton's conversations with White House lawyers were shielded by attorney-client privilege.
During the twice-daily conference calls among the president's lawyers, Ruff, along with Bruce R. Lindsey, Lanny A. Breuer and Cheryl D. Mills of the counsel's office, is on the line with Clinton's outside lawyers -- David E. Kendall, Robert S. Bennett and Mickey Kantor. He also meets daily with White House political advisers but dispenses little information.
Ruff is forthright about his attitude toward disclosure outside the small circle of lawyers with a similar need to know. "The less rather than more approach," he called it, a formulation that, by accident or design, is the mirror image of the "more rather than less" openness promised by President Clinton when the Lewinsky allegations first surfaced.
Following that principle, Ruff for weeks would not confirm to fellow aides that the president, whom he unfailingly refers to as "my client," had asserted executive privilege to block Starr's prosecutors. Last week, he refused to tell White House colleagues whether the president had been subpoenaed by Starr, infuriating some political advisers inside and outside the administration.
"It was such an unnecessary inflation of the story . . . a self-inflicted wound," said one adviser. Said another, "Instead of appearing to be cooperative . . . instead of making the most of this, it seems to me they have frittered away much of what they could have gotten out of this in terms of public relations and having you people interpret this as a big move on the part of the president."
Summing up months of disagreements, political adviser Rahm Emanuel said of Ruff: "He doesn't do strategy. He doesn't do politics. We did have the struggle. It's resolved. It's not like he said, 'Shut up and get out of the room.' He just said 'No.' "
White House counselor Paul Begala said he became so exasperated once that he announced, "If a secret was a needle and it was stuck in Chuck, you couldn't pull it out with a John Deere tractor." Ruff, he said, just smiled.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who has frequently locked horns with Ruff over questions of disclosure, said he understood the difficult position in which the lawyer finds himself. "It's easy to find plenty of people around here who are chafing and saying he's Queeg-like and doesn't share information, but I think I understand why," he said.
In a recent 1 1/2 hour interview in his West Wing office, Ruff acknowledged the tension and described it as an unfortunate fact of life under the specter of an independent counsel. "It drives them crazy, and sometimes it drives me crazy to have my colleagues who have other goals in life say 'come on,' " Ruff said, sitting in the same office he first visited as a young Justice Department lawyer meeting with Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean.
Although he sometimes pauses to appreciate the irony of landing in Dean's old job, Ruff dismissed comparisons to Watergate as off-base. "We were talking in 1973 and 1974 about people plotting about breaking into buildings and obstructing justice and paying people off," he said. "And to even talk about these two things in the same sentence to me is so extraordinary."
Eighteen months into Ruff's tenure, an empty hook dangles where Clinton's first White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, prominently hung a picture of himself with a young Hillary Rodham on the House impeachment committee. Among the few ornaments in his spacious second-floor office is a present from deputy counsel Cheryl Mills's trip to Africa: three carved monkeys posed as "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
Kendall, the president's private lawyer and Ruff's soul mate on questions of disclosure, praised Ruff's "coolness under fire." Ruff, he said, is "tough-minded . . . in terms of being willing to understand that there are some times when you had just better wait and get it right because otherwise you'll get hammered on charges of dissembling."
On joining the White House, Ruff consolidated power over the legal team handling "damage control" on matters such as fund-raising and Whitewater and had it report directly to him. Former White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis, who clashed with Ruff over media strategy during the fund-raising inquiry, said that in retrospect Ruff was correct in his more restrained approach.
"I believed we were for the most part in a political arena on a pure partisanship basis and we ought to act that way. I don't think he disagreed . . . but he would say what's effective is for you to be factual and for you to be a lawyer. At the end of the day, he was right, not always, but most of the time."
Ruff's no-comment approach does not come naturally: His parents both worked in public relations and his 87-year-old mother is still active representing clients in the music industry.
After attending Swarthmore College and Columbia Law School, the New York City native spotted a flier advertising Ford Foundation teaching opportunities in Africa and jumped at the chance, traveling to Liberia with his wife to teach law. "It was one of those great things you can only do when you're young and stupid," Ruff said.
One morning he woke up with a flu-like illness and could not move his legs; he has been paralyzed ever since as a result of a mysterious disease that even Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, could not identify.
Ruff's closest colleagues say he is such a private person that they have never asked about his disability. "Law is a sedentary profession," he said, dismissing questions about how using a wheelchair has affected his life. "It's not something I talk about."
Ruff joined the Justice Department, moving up through the ranks and eventually over to the Watergate special prosecution force, then became U.S. attorney for the District from 1979 to 1982, overseeing part of the Abscam prosecution of members of Congress.
As a partner at Covington & Burling, one of the city's most prestigious law firms, his work was more often behind the scenes, trying to head off indictments, than in the courtroom. To that end, Ruff's most renowned victory came in the case of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and the investigation into the illegal taping of telephone calls made by Robb's Democratic rival, future Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Ruff took the calculated risk of sending his client into the grand jury for an unusual second appearance. Then, suggesting that the prosecutor in the case was out to get Robb, Ruff persuaded his former Justice colleagues to send a senior official to instruct the grand jurors that the decision whether to indict Robb was up to them, not prosecutors.
The gamble paid off when the grand jury declined to indict Robb. "He skillfully played the insider's Washington game," said the prosecutor in the case, Robert W. Wiechering. "What I found objectionable were attempts to attack the prosecutor personally or his motivations."
When he represented Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in the Keating Five investigation before the Senate ethics committee, Ruff adopted a more low-key approach. "Chuck knew to lay low," said Bennett, who handled the Keating inquiry for the Senate. "A lot of lawyers wouldn't have had the good judgment to do that." In the end, the ethics committee merely admonished Glenn for showing poor judgment in his dealings with S&L operator Charles H. Keating Jr.
Among his fellow Washington lawyers, Ruff enjoys almost unparalleled stature. "The most respected guy in town," Reid H. Weingarten called Ruff. "One of the finest lawyers and, indeed, finest people in the city," said John Bates, who worked for Ruff in the U.S. Attorney's Office here and later served as a deputy to Starr.
It was that reputation that Clinton reached out to in choosing Ruff as his lawyer. "He brings to the office just a deep well of credibility in this town," said Ruff's predecessor, Jack Quinn.
When Clinton first took office, Ruff was in line for the number two position at the Justice Department. But Ruff withdrew from consideration when officials learned that he had failed to pay Social Security taxes for his housekeeper. Soon after, Ruff left his lucrative partnership at Covington (his partnership buyout alone was $711,000) for what many colleagues viewed as the thankless job of serving as corporation counsel, the District's top lawyer.
The question remains whether Ruff's reputation will survive his White House service intact. Congressional investigators handling the campaign finance inquiry as well as Starr's prosecutors said they were initially encouraged by the selection of Ruff, only to encounter the same frustrations they faced with previous White House lawyers.
For example, lawyers working for Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) accepted Ruff's assertions that they did not need to subpoena documents from the White House because it would provide them voluntarily. Later, they concluded they had been snookered. As the committee put it in its scathing final report, "Ruff and the White House Counsel's office selected the Nixon White House as their model."
One incident, which Ruff himself singles out as his "darkest day" in office, involved the belated discovery of videotapes of the controversial White House coffees, tapes that Senate investigators had been repeatedly told did not exist. A chagrined and normally camera-shy Ruff went so far as to go on a Sunday talk show to explain that the failure to find the tapes earlier was merely a bureaucratic foul-up.
Like Thompson's staff, Starr's prosecutors "felt that his background and his stature and what we knew about him were all positive signals," said Bates, who left the office shortly after Ruff's appointment. "We felt that he was someone that we could work with."
But today that is no longer the case. "I'm surprised by how he seems to have bought into the defense strategy," said one source close to Starr. "Although he is a government lawyer, he seems to be acting as a defense lawyer far more than one would have hoped a government lawyer would act."
Asked whether he was worried about tarnishing his reputation in the job, Ruff said, "Sure. But you don't let that shape your way of doing business."
And Ruff's way of doing business goes back to his Watergate days. In the interview, Ruff became animated over one achievement from that time. "One thing I think we did accomplish -- and I do not mean this as any comment on the current situation," Ruff said, "we did a great job of being a closed operation. If you ask your colleagues, they were really frustrated about not being able to get information out of the Watergate special prosecutor's office."
But Ruff -- though he has played a behind-the-scenes role in various White House attacks on Starr -- declined the temptation to compare their prosecutorial tenures.
"I appreciate your offering me the chance," he said. "I'll pass it by and leave it to others to judge."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.
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