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Mills: A Brand New Legal Star on the Rise

Deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills Deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills, left, and White House special counsel Gregory Craig leave Capitol Hill on Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A16

    Washington loves its bright young stars.

    It is a city of talented youth with good educations, bottomless energy and no lives, willing to pour everything into a cause, an agency, a campaign, a story. From Ted Sorensen to Hamilton Jordan to Ralph Reed – one grows up and the next one emerges.

    Even against this backdrop, however, what happened to Cheryl D. Mills yesterday was remarkable. The 33-year-old deputy White House counsel made the first significant public courtroom appearance of her young legal career.

    In the well of the United States Senate . . . convened as a court of impeachment to try the president . . . the chief justice of the United States presiding . . . under the gaze of 100 senators and of history.

    Mills was the second of two attorneys for President Clinton who spent the afternoon banging away at the House prosecution case. She followed Gregory B. Craig, a blooded veteran of that busy intersection where politics and litigation collide. And it was a bit like watching Liza Minnelli follow Judy Garland – both knew what they were doing, both had their fans, but only one was a virtuoso.

    An admiring colleague speculated that someone must have counseled Mills to speak slowly. "Normally," the colleague said, "she is one of the fastest talkers I know." Like everything she does, Mills pursued this notion with a vengeance, and spoke ev-er-y word ver-y em-phat-ic-ally.

    "We cannot uphold the rule of law only when it is consistent with our beliefs," she admonished. "We must uphold it even when it protects behavior that we don't like or is unattractive or is not admirable or that might even be hurtful."

    A year after the White House scandal broke, who could imagine that there was still a new face to meet in this drama?

    Cheryl Denise Mills was 27 – a member of the bar for all of two years, a lowly associate at a Washington power-firm, Hogan & Hartson – when she joined the presidential transition team in 1992. Bill Clinton had not yet been elected, but things looked good enough to begin planning.

    Six years later, she is a senior member of the Office of White House Counsel. The counsel ranks first. That would be Charles F.C. Ruff, the fifth man to hold the job. Then two deputies, Mills, and presidential consigliere Bruce Lindsey. They have been there from Day One.

    In a way, Mills is a younger version of Lindsey, one of the few recent additions to the once-storied, now-battered circle of fierce and unquestioning Clinton loyalists. The president and the first lady feel about her the way they generally feel only of longtime allies: They like her in the foxhole with them.

    Partly it is her brains. The daughter of a career Army officer, Mills grew up on bases around the world, attended the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School and sped through the White House ranks by the time she was 30.

    Partly it is her devotion. "She is incredibly loyal to the president," says one White House colleague. "If something's on the other side of a brick wall and the Clintons need it, she'll find a way to get to it: over, around or through." A senior adviser to the president puts it this way: "She loves this president and is really proud of him. She's acutely conscious of the opportunities he has given her and what she owes."

    And partly it is her attitude. "Combative," "strong-willed," "very tough – in all ways," "a lioness," according to friends and colleagues. As enforcer of the campaign and conflict-of-interest rules at the White House, it's her job to tell people no – including the president of the United States.

    During the campaign finance scandals of 1997, Mills endeared herself to the Clintons with her never-back-down, share-nothing, don't-give-an-inch approach – it's their favorite approach of all. Daily, she battled with attorney Lanny J. Davis, who had been brought in to shepherd the news media through the firestorm. They clashed constantly. Davis wanted to release information. Mills wanted to keep it under wraps.

    "The lawyerly approach in any of these situations is not to turn anything over until you have to," one White House official explains. "The other side will only ram it down your throat. Lanny's position was that this was more about public relations than law."

    Davis, now back in private practice, praises Mills's ability to engage in "strong – and I mean strong – disagreements without personalizing them." Says he: "There may be people in the White House who have greater history with Bill and Hillary Clinton, or greater loyalty or are better lawyers. But aside from Lindsey, there is nobody who exceeds Cheryl in all three."

    She heats her office to a boil and wears shawls to keep warm. The place is dominated by a huge signed portrait of Michael Jordan. (Next to it is a picture of Clinton getting Jordan to sign it.) She does charity work with a project called D.C. Works, in which young professionals provide tutoring and other encouragement to prod disadvantaged children toward college. In this effort, she has become a friend of David Domenici, son of Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

    She cut a striking figure on the Senate floor. After four-and-a half days of speeches by white men, there she was, an African American woman. Though she poked away at the claims that Clinton obstructed justice by manipulating his secretary, Betty Currie, her most powerful role might have been in giving voice to the black and female voters who have always been the president's strongest supporters.

    "I stand here before you today because America decided that the way things were was not how they're going to be," Mills said. "We the people decided that we all deserved a better deal. I stand here before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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