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Obama White House Counsel Gregory Craig: What I've Learned
Comments () | Published May 23, 2011

Though so much about Bush’s interrogation and detainee policies was public by the time you took over in the White House, did anything surprise you?
The nature of the lawyering associated with the interrogation techniques. I don’t want to be overly critical of the lawyers who thought they were doing the job expected of them, but I thought they lost the forest for the trees when they tried to determine whether these techniques were cruel or inhuman punishment, whether it was torture by the definition of the laws against torture in this country or whether you used Eighth Amendment cruel-and-unusual-punishment standards. They clearly lost the big picture.

What did you learn about the dynamics of working in the White House? You worked under much different circumstances in the Clinton White House.
My job in the Clinton White House was much more focused. It dealt with one issue—the impeachment. Whenever that issue came up, I was in the room and knew exactly what was going on. What I found out, which is true in most human endeavors, not just the White House—it’s true in Congress as well as the military as well as in dealing with national catastrophes—is that the key to success is successful coordination. The White House is not a large institution, but for the White House to be successful, the various parts have to work together.

Why did you leave the Obama administration after a year?
I thought he had gotten from me what he wanted when he asked me to be White House counsel. He said, “I know you want to do national-security issues. I expect you to do that when you’re the White House counsel.” I thought I’d pretty much done as much as I could do for the President.

Your leaving didn’t have anything to do with Guantánamo?
I don’t think it had anything to do with Guantánamo.

Why did you decide to join Skadden rather than to return to your former firm, Williams & Connolly?
I was headed straight back to my old law firm when I got a call from an old friend, Cliff Sloan, and a wonderful new friend, Joe Flom. They urged me to take the time to try a different path. They asked me to set up a crisis-management team at Skadden and create a new practice group that focused on global issues and litigation strategies. I went to Skadden to explore new challenges and work on new projects that, using Skadden’s global platform, required international troubleshooting and problem-solving. It wasn’t that I was turning my back on my old practice; I was embracing a new one.

Talk about the strategy that went into getting Justice Sonia Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Early on, the President recognized that he was going to have the opportunity to make a Supreme Court appointment. He gave us the names of four or five candidates he thought we should start investigating and building files for him to look at—if they were judges, what their opinions were; if they were not judges, what articles they’d written, what speeches they’d delivered, what their background was. Everything from private issues having to do with health and family to public issues having to do with what they said on this issue or that.

The four or five names he gave us at the beginning were the four or five names we had at the end. As a teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago and as someone who was familiar with the judicial branch and potential nominees, he knew pretty much where he was going and who he was going to be considering.
Two things I would say were unusual: At the end of the day, it was his personal interviews of each of the finalists that resolved it. They were one-on-one, private interviews. I didn’t sit in on them. It was the President with his background information on the candidates, spending at least an hour with each, and out of that making the decision for Justice Sotomayor. The second thing we discovered was that the first 48 hours after the name is announced are critical for informing the public. They’re going to be interested, they’re going to draw their conclusions, and they’re going to get a first impression. During those 48 hours, the courtesy calls Justice Sotomayor performed, and then carried on during the month and a half that preceded the hearings, were absolutely critical.

What was the most rewarding part about your time in the White House? The most disappointing part?
Putting together the group that worked in the White House counsel’s office, having such an extraordinarily talented and dedicated group of people working for this President and being the head of that office, was to me the most satisfying thing I could do, and I was very proud of that.

I can’t tell you what the most disappointing thing was. Every day there are little disappointments in the White House. You have to learn how to live with those and keep going, and you can never let them throw you off your game.

How did you keep them from throwing you off?
If you’re a trial lawyer and you go to trial, you deal with stress. If you work in political campaigns, you deal with stress, and when you work in the White House, you deal with stress. It all has to do with expectations and performing at a high level, and that’s the life I’ve chosen.

What do you think the American people don’t understand about President Obama?
They’re finally discovering that Obama is a profound and old-fashioned patriot, that he is a deeply religious person, and that he works harder at his job than any President in my lifetime. People are only now appreciating how much he loves this country and how proud he is to serve.

You were close with Senator Ted Kennedy. Can you talk about the time you spent with him?
My relationship with Senator Kennedy changed over the years. I started out as a member of his senior staff. I was a foreign-policy adviser. When I left his office, I became much more of a personal adviser, lawyer, and counselor to him and to his family. During the later years, I was a very close friend, so there were phases in my relationship with him that were different. I think in the last 20 years of his life he was a magnificent legislator. And throughout his career as a senator, he set a new standard for what one individual in the Senate can achieve.

What personal impact did he have on you?
I have many memories about good times and tough times. In every memory, there’s a lesson. I will never forget how dedicated to his constituency in Massachusetts he was in every moment. We traveled all over the world, and we would go to Navy vessels. He would ask the captain to line up all the people from Massachusetts so he could meet every sailor and Marine that came from Massachusetts. Then when he got home, he would call their families, each and every one.

Going back to your time in the Clinton White House, that was clearly a remarkable moment in history. How did the President convince you to come on and coordinate his defense against impeachment?
He said, “I need you to help me do this.” And I said, “I’m not sure I can make much difference.” He persuaded me that I could and that he would be personally grateful if I would try.

It took a bit of work on his part, actually, because I was working in a terrific job for the Secretary of State and had been reluctant to get involved in the Monica Lewinsky matter. I had been watching from the State Department as August [1998] unrolled and he announced he was going to testify in front of the grand jury, and then he made a statement acknowledging a relationship that was inappropriate with Ms. Lewinsky. About that time, the White House was calling and saying they needed someone to help coordinate an impeachment defense, and I did put them off a bit because I didn’t think I was the right person.

What was it like entering a White House that had already been dealing with this for months?
There were incredibly talented people in the White House. Many of them felt betrayed by what the President had done and angry that he had not been truthful with them. The First Lady was still very hurt and vanished from the scene for a couple months. When I went over there, I thought I would see more or as much of the First Lady as I would of the President, because I knew Hillary from law school—I knew her better than Bill Clinton.

I hardly saw her at all, maybe once, during the entire period. It’s not that she was absent without leave; she just wasn’t engaged the way I expected her to be. It’s hard to blame her. So yes, you’re right—the White House was besieged, beleaguered, and feeling deeply embattled.

You mentioned your relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton from law school. When you decided to support then-senator Obama over Hillary, did you weigh any of that?
You don’t make these decisions lightly, but I did believe then and I believe today that Barack Obama was the right person for the country at that time, that his leadership on foreign policy—particularly on the war in Iraq—was leadership I could respect and follow. His personal life and his professional decisions were admirable, and his youth and stamina and love of this country—all of that persuaded me he was the right guy. I think the country grew to agree with me.

He did have the assistance of an economic catastrophe—that’s a bad way of putting it—but the economics were bad and so the incumbent party was in trouble. But he ran a magnificent campaign, and for him to have won the states he won is for the history books.

Are you still friends with Hillary?
I think so, yeah. We worked very closely when I was in the White House, and I think she’s doing a great job.

Circling back to impeachment, where were you and what was going through your head on the day of the vote?
It was December 19, 1998. It was a rainy day, cold and wet. The day began early because the Democratic caucus was meeting in one of the office buildings, to be addressed by the First Lady, who wanted to thank everybody for their support. It was a very moving, very emotional event.

I will never forget the details of that day. From the minute-to-minute debate on the floor of the House to the votes to the two articles of impeachment passed that day to the meetings that we had at the White House after the vote to talk about what next. It was a somber day.

What were you feeling?
That it was hugely important to our history what had happened, that it was a grotesque abuse of power in my judgment, that even if the President had done all the things they alleged he had done, it didn’t rise to the level of impeachment.

Did you emerge more cynical about the ways of Washington?

I was disappointed in the way the system operated. Unlike the impeachment process that resulted in a profile in courage with Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, I found that in President Clinton’s impeachment there were very few profiles in courage. There were 45 or 50 representatives in the House who had every reason to believe this was not an impeachable offense but did not have the courage to vote their convictions.

I believe that it was a naked abuse of power that was carried out by Tom DeLay and his staffers and that the history books should write that. This doesn’t make me cynical; it just makes me disappointed in the process.

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Posted at 08:20 AM/ET, 05/23/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles