W here there is controversy, there is Brett Kavanaugh.
The legal fight after Vincent Foster's suicide? Kavanaugh led it.
The Starr report on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? Kavanaugh co-wrote it.
President Bush's order limiting the release of presidential papers? Kavanaugh drafted it.
The probe of Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich? Kavanaugh was in the thick of it.
The hotly contested judicial nominations of Priscilla Owens and Miguel Estrada? Kavanaugh coordinated them.
Indeed, for the past eight years, Kavanaugh, 37, has had a hand in virtually every high-profile legal battle involving presidential power. But for Bethesda native Kavanaugh, there's an intriguing twist: As a lawyer working for Kenneth Starr during the Whitewater investigation, he was devoted to restricting the powers of the president. Now, as a lawyer in the Bush White House, he is devoted to expanding the chief executive's powers.
Within a few years, Kavanaugh's work has gone from being described as "a serious blow to the presidency," as Clinton lawyer Lloyd Cutler put it, to promoting an "imperial presidency," as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) put it.
The political opposition sees rank hypocrisy. "Kavanaugh, who once defended Starr's insatiable appetite for information on presidential doings as being not about politics but about the sanctity of the law, has apparently changed his tune," according to the liberal Nation magazine. "The ironies abound." A cynical view of Kavanaugh's actions would be that he bases his legal reasoning on his conservative views -- that he supports broad powers for a Republican president and circumscribed powers for a Democratic president. A more charitable explanation is that Kavanaugh is merely a good lawyer, forcefully representing the best interests of his client at the moment. Asked about Kavanaugh's ideology, Craig Lerner, a former colleague from the Whitewater investigation, replied: "He's a terrific lawyer."
Kavanaugh declined to be quoted in this article, but his administration colleagues say he has been consistent in the positions he took for Starr and now for Bush. Under Starr, they say, he was seeking to rein in presidential privileges in a criminal matter; as a counsel to Bush, he is seeking to defend presidential privileges in civil matters.
"The need for information in criminal proceedings is a trump card," said another former Starr lieutenant now in the Bush administration. "In civil litigation, a president gets the benefit of the doubt a lot more."
For the dozen former Starr underlings with high-level jobs in or appointments by the Bush administration -- including two in the White House and three in the Justice Department -- that explanation is something of a personal rationale. The real test will come if the Bush administration is facing a criminal probe. "You might have to reassess based on what Brett does at that point," the former Starr colleague said.
For a man with such a record of controversial cases, Kavanaugh has few enemies. Even legal opponents find him charming, and his friends say he has none of the hard edges of an ideologue. "I don't view him as a hard-core right-wing Republican, said Doug Gansler, a Democrat who is the Maryland state's attorney in Montgomery County. "He's seemingly much more moderate than his writings and words would suggest."
Mark Tuohey, who as a Starr deputy in 1994 and 1995 hired Kavanaugh, said he's "never viewed Brett as somebody of ideological purity. I always felt very comfortable that Brett looked at things through a legal prism, not a political prism." Still, said Tuohey, a Vinson & Elkins partner and self-described Democrat, it would be hard to say that the anti-Clinton work Kavanaugh did for Starr is ideologically consistent with the pro-Bush work he's now doing. "I think it's a stretch," Tuohey said.
After college and law school at Yale, Kavanaugh clerked for federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and worked briefly at President George H.W. Bush's Justice Department. In between and after stints on the Whitewater investigation, Kavanaugh spent about three years at Starr's firm, Kirkland & Ellis.
For Starr, Kavanaugh went to the Supreme Court in the Foster case, arguing, unsuccessfully, that the lawyer-client confidentiality expires at death. He represented Starr in efforts to get Hillary Clinton's notes related to the Foster matter, to get lawyer Bruce Lindsey's notes in the Lewinsky affair, and to get testimony from Secret Service agents. His greatest fame, though, came as an author of the Starr report -- the legal piece, not the explicit narrative.
In the White House, Kavanaugh developed an executive order related to the Presidential Records Act, giving former presidents and their families more power to prevent the release of presidential papers. The order infuriated historians, and an effort to overturn it is underway in Congress.
Kavanaugh was also at the center of efforts to prevent Congress from getting access to Clinton's pardon records and to documents related to the 1996 Clinton fundraising investigation. He's found himself at the center of Bush's judicial selections and a fight with the Senate Governmental Affairs committee over the administration's Enron documents. And he is involved in the liability provisions in the terrorism insurance legislation that have set off a fight on Capitol Hill.
Still, Kavanaugh finds time to speak at occasional gathering of the Federalist Society, a club of elite conservative lawyers. But for those who see that as evidence he's an ideologue, Kavanaugh also belongs to the American Bar Association -- the organization Kavanaugh's office has removed from the judicial selection process.