In his most wide-ranging interview as White House counsel, Gregory Craig said Friday that he does not intend to resign his position and he pushed back against criticism of his role in the Obama administration’s plan to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“I have no plans to leave whatsoever,” Craig said. “The rumors that I’m about to leave are false. The reports that I’m about to leave are wrong. I have no plans to leave.”
Craig, a fixture of Washington’s legal and political establishments for decades, has faced a drumbeat of news reports since August that he is on his way out as President Barack Obama’s top in-house lawyer. His dismissal of those reports is his first public comment on the matter, though he repeatedly declined to elaborate. Later in the interview, he described his relationship with Obama as “excellent.”
The former Williams & Connolly partner, speaking about his first nine months as counsel, also explained the White House strategy to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor this summer. He said the administration has no plans to withdraw a handful of embattled nominees for the U.S. Justice Department, and he defended an unusual reversal this spring when the White House devised a new legal strategy to avoid releasing photographs that show detainee abuse.
ARRIVING WITH EXPERIENCE
One of Obama’s first hires as president-elect, Craig, 64, arrived with a long and varied résumé. He has held top positions on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. State Department, served as special impeachment counsel to President Bill Clinton, and represented high-profile clients such as Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations.
But for months, and especially the past two weeks, Craig has been fighting questions about whether he’ll resign. Administration officials, quoted anonymously in news reports, second-guessed Craig’s support of a one-year deadline to shutter Guantánamo. They accused him of causing a diplomatic rift while helping to transfer four detainees to Bermuda, and they described his role in the overall effort as diminished.
In an article in The Washington Post last month, Craig was quoted saying he may have miscalculated early on the opposition to closing Guantánamo.
Craig, despite the traditionally low profile of a White House counsel, rebutted some of the criticism in an interview with The National Law Journal in his West Wing office, which is lined with memorabilia tied to his work for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other prominent Democrats. The White House last week also rallied other administration lawyers, including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., to his defense.
Craig said he was “certainly not the point man on Guantánamo,” contradicting the Post article that quotes him saying he managed the closure “on a day-to-day basis” in February. The National Security Council was in charge of the effort, he said on Oct. 9. He said that he coordinated and explained executive orders on Guantánamo and then, as the Guantánamo strategy focused on Congress, made a “natural transition” to other issues.
“The notion that I have been replaced, for a job that I was never assigned, that was just not true,” Craig said.
Holder, in an interview last week, said criticism of Craig has been unfair. Craig was not the only one who did not anticipate delays in closing Guantánamo, he said. “To the extent that people blame him for the delays, they also need to give him credit for the progress,” said Holder, who rivals Craig as the most influential lawyer in the nation.
About 220 detainees remain at Guantánamo. Matthew Olsen, executive director of the task force reviewing the detainees’ legal status, said the task force is on track to determine each detainee’s before January.
Craig’s tenure has been marked by other polarizing decisions about national security. He advised Obama, against pleas from the intelligence community, to release memos from the Justice Department outlining interrogation methods. The White House also agreed to the release of photos, sought in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, showing abused detainees because it said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would be “hopeless.” The administration reversed itself weeks later and petitioned the Court to block the release on military security grounds.
The inconsistency in the photos case does not mean the counsel’s office failed to provide the correct advice the first time around, Craig said Friday. “The advice he got was right on the button,” Craig said.
Former White House lawyers of both parties said in interviews that Craig risked controversy early on by assuming a larger role in crafting policy than others who have held the job. Many, but not all, previous counsel have kept to the limited function of providing legal advice to the president, rather than trying to intervene with lawyers who work in Cabinet agencies.
“Greg is not just sort of any old lawyer. He is a brilliant foreign-policy thinker who has extensive experience in government doing policy planning,” said John Bellinger III, who advised Condoleeza Rice when she was White House national security adviser and secretary of state. But, added Bellinger, now a partner at Arnold & Porter, that influence can create adversaries: “It’s perhaps not surprising that those in the departments or agencies who disagree with any of his policy views would then be critical of his role.”
Though he said he’s not a “lead policy maker,” Craig acknowledged that he’s been more involved in national security matters than previous counsel have been.
Craig became an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign after the two met at the home of former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan Jr., senior counsel to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. His enthusiasm developed despite his longtime friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Now as counsel, Craig said he sees Obama at least daily and has direct access to the Oval Office without having to go through other senior officials. “He makes that absolutely clear: that whenever I need to talk to him, I can just walk in and talk to him on-one-one,” Craig said.
VETTING AND PREPPING
To meet his priorities, Craig enjoys resources that few other president’s counsel have had. Craig began with a staff of 24 drawn from prominent Washington firms, top law schools and Capitol Hill — what he called in February “the greatest new law firm on the face of the planet.” That number is down to 19, after several departures to other administration jobs, a spokesman said Friday. The Bush administration had 26 lawyers in the counsel’s office in early January, in part because it was facing congressional investigations.
Much of the work of the White House Counsel’s Office — preparing executive orders, vetting judicial nominees — doesn’t change from administration to administration. Obama’s lawyers have prepared executive orders that set out extensive ethics guidelines and that authorize advisers, popularly known as “czars,” on issues such as urban affairs and health care. Issuing executive orders is “an important function for the president because that’s a way he can put his stamp on the executive branch,” Craig said.
In February, after a series of high-profile vetting failures by people outside the counsel’s office, Craig said his office took over the background checks for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet nominees. The new position, a special counsel to the president, is held by former O’Melveny & Myers partner Michael Camuñez. “I think we do more vetting and more background checks than previous White House counsel have done,” Craig said.
Craig’s office has gotten high marks for its handling of Sotomayor’s nomination, after she won confirmation with little delay. But some liberal legal scholars saw the confirmation as an ideological defeat because Sotomayor publicly disagreed with Obama’s statements on the role of empathy in judging. Asked about the criticism, Craig said that Sotomayor statements about “fidelity to the law” were not an attempt to copy the playbook of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s confirmation process.
“That is her career. Those are her words,” Craig said of Sotomayor. “If you look at her record on the 2d Circuit and her record on the district court as a trial judge, ‘fidelity to the law’ are the words that best describe that record. So, this is not something that we have drawn from the Roberts’ lesson.”
David Ingram can be reached at dingram@-alm.com.