Kathryn Ruemmler does not fit the mold of an Obama confidante. She doesn’t know Barack Obama from his days in Chicago, and she never toiled on his campaigns. She doesn’t golf with him on weekends or blow off steam with him on the basketball court.
Yet this blunt-spoken former prosecutor has become a trusted member of President Obama’s inner circle. As White House counsel, Ruemmler guides the president’s decisions on issues ranging from the war on terrorism to Cabinet and judicial nominations to immigration policy.
And in the second term, when scandal and failure historically abound, Ruemmler has emerged as the protector of the presidency — and the focus of growing criticism of the White House’s insular and often secretive posture.
“She’s tenacious, tough, skilled and a good manager,” said David Plouffe, a longtime Obama political adviser who left the White House in January. He said she faces “intense crucibles.”
Ruemmler’s office is the response center for investigations of the White House, and it is she who negotiates with House Republicans exercising their subpoena and oversight powers. The 42-year-old lawyer sees her mission in part as keeping Obama and his top appointees out of their path.
Her role has made her office the focus of controversy in recent weeks over the White House’s handling of three incidents: the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the administration’s response to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records in leak investigations.
It was Ruemmler’s decision, for example, not to tell Obama about the findings of the inspector general’s audit of the IRS and to resist congressional demands to release drafts of talking points on last fall’s Benghazi attack on the grounds that it would violate executive privilege.
In the case of the IRS, Ruemmler — who got her first experience navigating scandal as a young associate in the White House counsel’s office in the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency — was shielding Obama from even the appearance of trying to influence the investigation, officials said.
Republicans aren’t buying it.
“The president claims openness and transparency, but that never, ever happens,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in an interview about relations with Ruemmler’s office. “Even when we ask the most basic questions, their standard operating procedure is they don’t respond.”
In 2011, when Obama had to replace White House counsel Robert F. Bauer, his longtime confidant who left to work on the reelection campaign, the president was looking for a lawyer who wouldn’t be afraid to give him candid advice, aides say. Bauer, who had recruited Ruemmler to be his deputy counsel a year earlier, believed that she fit the bill.
“At points I would throw out an idea, and she would say, ‘There’s no way in the world you’ll ever want to do that; that’s ridiculous,’ ” Bauer recalled. “There was no attempt, ever, by Kathy to put even light icing on the cake.”
Obama’s White House is a particularly insular place, populated with aides — such as deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco and senior advisers Pete Rouse and Dan Pfeiffer — who have worked for Obama since his 2008 campaign or earlier. By contrast, Ruemmler was an outsider who had virtually no relationship with the president.
This concerned Obama, Plouffe said. Of all the conversations a president has, those with his counsel are perhaps the most candid. Still, at Bauer’s strong urging, Obama promoted Ruemmler.
“He really relied on Bob’s vote of confidence here,” Plouffe said.
Early on, Obama’s White House became known for a frat-boy atmosphere in which rough language abounded. Big personalities such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs soaked up the oxygen, and some women complained that they felt marginalized.
Ruemmler, who goes by Kathy, is one of the few women who has been able to break into the club.
“She doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid, which I think is a remarkable thing for a White House counsel,” said John M. Dowd, a Washington lawyer and Ruemmler friend. “You don’t want a sycophant or a big cheerleader.”
Ruemmler made her mark in her mid-30s when she was one of three lead prosecutors in the high-profile case against Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who were convicted on securities and wire fraud charges.
The trial also gained Ruemmler notice for a more superficial reason: her shoes. During the proceedings in 2006, she paired a conservative gray suit with what the Wall Street Journal described as “stunning 4-inch bright pink stiletto spikes.” This inspired Above the Law, a legal affairs blog, to dub her a “superstar litigatrix.”
Her shoes — which include pairs from designers Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin — are so legendary that everyone from the president down teases her about her footwear, according to White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
Like any White House counsel, Ruemmler must be a generalist. In two years on the job, she has been involved in the successful Supreme Court defense of Obama’s health-care law — she and the president embraced in a widely seen hug after the law was upheld — as well as policies to defer deportation of some young undocumented immigrants and to provide wider access to birth control.
Obama, a former constitutional law professor, and Ruemmler often engage in extended conversations about legal minutiae, Palmieri said, and he doesn’t hesitate to call her into the Oval Office.
“He’ll say: ‘Wait a minute, where’s my lawyer? I need my lawyer,’ ” Palmieri said. “She’s someone who is very often summoned to engage in a discussion on something that may come up throughout the day.”
Ruemmler has spearheaded a recent White House push on judicial nominations, including last week’s confirmation of Sri Srinivasan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She has advised the president on key national security questions, such as whether the government could use a drone to kill an American on U.S. soil (no) and whether the Boston Marathon bombing suspect should be tried in criminal court (yes).
Ruemmler has also taken a hard line on the release of internal documents that lead to these decisions, prompting strong objections from Republicans.
During negotiations over John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, according to a White House official, it was Ruemmler who decided that the House and Senate intelligence panels could review the e-mails about different drafts of the Benghazi talking points without letting them take copies. The administration shifted course this month by releasing the e-mails after weeks of controversy over their content.
Chaffetz, who chairs an oversight subcommittee, said Ruemmler and her colleagues have needlessly antagonized Congress on issues from Benghazi to the IRS. “There’s no respect for the congressional duties from the White House,” he said.
As the in-house lawyer, Ruemmler also runs the White House’s vetting operation for nominees and appointees. If Obama gets a third Supreme Court vacancy to fill, she will orchestrate his confidential search.
Ruemmler, who is unmarried and has no children, shares a couple of quirks with many of her West Wing colleagues: She prizes physical fitness and clocks long hours. She is known to dispense workout tips to those who are less inclined to exercise, encouraging friends who don’t jog to “walk one minute, run one minute.” And friends said she often fires off e-mails at 2 or 3 in the morning.
Ruemmler grew up in Richland, in remote southeastern Washington state, and graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. Although she came east to Georgetown University Law Center and has spent most of her career in the District, friends said she has a decidedly West Coast sensibility.
“She’s not someone who comes from some storied D.C. or New York family,” said Neal Katyal, acting solicitor general in Obama’s first term. “She doesn’t have much tolerance for that. She’s someone who really respects people who do the right thing and who have done it themselves rather than have it handed to them.”
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