President-elect Barack Obama has picked Williams & Connolly partner Gregory Craig as White House counsel, filling the first major legal position in his administration with a top Washington lawyer who represented President Bill Clinton during his impeachment.
Craig was a close adviser to Obama throughout the campaign and among the first lawyers to back his presidential bid. Craig's bailiwick in the campaign included debate preparation and foreign policy.
He first met with Obama at a 2003 fundraising dinner held at the home of one of the Clintons' closest friends, Vernon Jordan Jr. He took a shine to the young politician immediately.
"I became convinced that [Obama] had the ability to bring people together and to end the partisan bickering in a way that no one else did," Craig told Legal Times in March.
The 63-year-old lawyer, the first in his law firm's august history to serve as White House counsel, has shifted easily among politics, foreign policy and law throughout his career.
One former White House counsel says the experience will serve Craig well in the job, which is shaped by the president but generally involves providing a mix of legal and policy advice.
Abner Mikva, a legal adviser to Obama who served as Clinton's White House counsel, says he expects Obama to take advantage "of the 'counsel' part of the job."
A protege of Edward Bennett Williams, Craig represented Richard Helms, former director of central intelligence, in a perjury investigation stemming from Helms' 1973 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A few years later, he defended John Hinckley Jr., who was charged with the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.
For five years in the 1980s, Craig left Williams & Connolly to serve as a senior foreign policy and national security adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. He left the firm again, in the late 1990s, to act as one of Madeleine Albright's senior advisers and director of policy planning at the State Department. In 1998, Clinton brought him to the White House as the special counsel tasked with leading Clinton's impeachment defense.
(Craig, who has known the Clintons since they all attended Yale Law School, told Legal Times in March that he hadn't spoken to them since the 2008 presidential campaign began.)
Craig was a household name in Washington by the time he helped Elian Gonzalez's father get the boy back in a controversial custody battle in 2000. He also represented then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in connection with the oil-for-food investigation. Most recently, Craig has been defending former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain against a lawsuit brought on behalf of families of civilians killed during protests against the Bolivian government in 2003. It's unclear when Craig will formally cut ties with Williams & Connolly.
"Greg is a spectacular lawyer, and he'll do a wonderful job. He's not only smart and has terrific judgment but has a great sense of Washington," says Williams & Connolly partner Howard Gutman, who worked on the campaign with Craig. "We'll miss him."
Obama's selection has only fueled speculation about whom he will tap as attorney general.
Mikva, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who lives in the same Chicago neighborhood as Obama, says he hopes the president-elect's choice of Craig signals that the top legal spot will also go to someone close to Obama.
In his case, Mikva says, he had only met Clinton on one occasion prior to accepting the appointment. Nor did Janet Reno, Clinton's attorney general, have a personal relationship with the president before she was confirmed.They got along well, but they weren't as effective a team as they could have been, Mikva says.
"The ideal situation is if all three of them are simpatico with each other," says Mikva.