Updated 9:22 a.m. PDT: White House Counsel Greg Craig resigned Friday morning, due in large part to the administration’s dissatisfaction over his handling of Guantanamo policy, according to published reports, and will be replaced by President Obama’s personal attorney Robert Bauer.
In a letter he sent to the Obama Friday, Craig said he has decided to return to private practice. His resignation will become effective January 3. His letter highlighted his 10 months of service with the administration and the “many executive orders” he helped draft as well as identifying Judge Sonia Sotomayor as Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee and the high-court’s first Latina justice.
According to a report published in Washington Post, Craig’s departure comes “less than a month after officials said Craig was no longer guiding the effort to close the prison.”
White House officials declined to confirm the expected announcement but have said for many weeks that they thought Craig would leave and be succeeded by Bauer. The timing appears likely to coincide with announcements related to Guantanamo, in particular a pending decision by the Justice Department over the legal fate of some key detainees and whether Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be transferred to federal court for prosecution.
In a statement, Obama said Craig “tackled many tough challenges as White House Counsel.”
“Because of Greg’s leadership, we have confirmed the first Latina justice on the Supreme Court, set the toughest ethics standards for any administration in history, and ensured that we are keeping the nation secure in a manner that is consistent with our laws and our values,” Obama said.
Rumors have swirled for months that the Craig, who represented fomer President Bill Clinton during his Senate impeachment trial, was being forced out due in large part to controversies surrounding Guantanamo policy and a decision by the Obama administration to delay the closing of the facility.
Last August, the Wall Street Journal also reported that Craig has had “a rocky tenure” over some national security issues that have become “political liabilities” for President Obama.
“These include the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the release of Bush administration-era national-security documents, and efforts to find legal ways to indefinitely hold some detainees who can’t be put on trial,” the Journal reported at the time, citing unnamed sources.
Last January, Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo by early 2010, but a proposal to move some of the detainees to maximum security prisons in the U.S. and try them in federal courts received zero support from Democrats, Republicans and the public.
According to the Journal’s report:
Mr. Craig has come under criticism from inside the administration and in Congress for a perceived failure to manage the political issues that have originated from Mr. Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo, according to officials in the administration and in Congress. This criticism has drawn focus away from president’s priorities, such as health care and energy.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina denied the claims at the time. In a statement to the Journal, Messina said:
We’ve addressed these rumors before. They are nothing more than typical Washington parlor games. It’s disappointing that while we are focused on reviving the economy and fighting two wars, others spend their time pointing fingers in an attempt to promote their own status.
The Journal and Post report suggests that Craig may have fallen out of favor with some administration officials because he backed public disclosure on documents related to the Bush administration’s use of torture against alleged terrorist detainees and his advice to the president on those matters and issues related to Guantanamo lead to vicious attacks against the president by Republicans.
For example, the Journal said some of the “difficulties” Craig has faced revolve around Obama’s reversal in May not to release photographs depicting U.S. soldiers abusing and torturing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the Journal did not elaborate on what the “difficulties” entailed.
Obama had previously said he would release the photographs in question in accordance with a federal court order. But he shifted his stance weeks later claiming that his decision stemmed from his personal review of the photos and his concern that their release would endanger American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Obama’s reversal also came after several weeks of mounting attacks against him as weak on national security.
Obama has since signed legislation into law that would authorize Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act and withhold the photographs on national security grounds.
Craig also reportedly advised Obama on plans to release Justice Department legal opinions drafted during George W. Bush’s first term in office that gave Bush the legal authority to spy on American citizens and the CIA the green light to torture “high-level” alleged terrorist detainees.
But national-security officials complained that they weren’t consulted about those plans and “weeks of debate inside the administration” ensued, the Journal reported.
The Justice Department memoranda was released in April.
But the White House went into damage control mode immediately thereafter as Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz Cheney, publicly accused Obama of inviting a terrorist attack on U.S. soil as a result of his decision.
Around the same time, the Journal reported:
…The administration was running into trouble with plans to move to northern Virginia at least some Chinese Muslim Uighurs who remain detained at Guantanamo despite being cleared for release. The furor over the possible release of former suspects in the U.S. led Congress to overwhelmingly pass new restrictions, including barring spending to close the Guantanamo prison.
Last July, Newsweek reported that tensions between Justice Department officials and Craig’s office reached a boiling point just a few weeks after Obama was sworn into office.
The first detonation occurred in only the third week of the administration, soon after a Justice lawyer walked into a courtroom in California and argued that a lawsuit, brought by a British detainee who was alleging torture, should have been thrown out on national-security grounds. By invoking the “state secrets” privilege, the lawyer was reaffirming a position staked out by the Bush administration. The move provoked an uproar among liberals and human-rights groups. It also infuriated Obama, who learned about it from the front page of The New York Times. “This is not the way I like to make decisions,” he icily told aides, according to two administration officials, who declined to be identified discussing the president’s private reactions. White House officials were livid and accused the Justice Department of sandbagging the president. Justice officials countered that they’d notified the White House counsel’s office about the position they had planned to take.
Newsweek said the friction only became worse and “came to a head in June.”
By then, Congress was in full revolt over the prospect of Gitmo detainees being transferred to the United States, and the Senate had already voted to block funding to shut down Guantánamo. On the afternoon of June 3, a White House official called Holder’s office to let him know that a compromise had been reached with Senate Democrats. The deal had been cut without input from Justice, according to three department officials who did not want to be identified discussing internal matters, and it imposed onerous restrictions that would make it harder to move detainees from Cuba to the United States.
Friday’s Post report added that Craig, who had hoped to be appointed to a post conducting foreign policy, intended to use his position as White House counsel to “smooth some initiatives he cared most about, including reversing the Bush-era detainee policies.
“Indeed, he took the job of closing the prison facility so seriously that when Bermuda agreed to take several detainees from Guantanamo, Craig personally flew with them to the island,” the Post reported.
But just a few months in office left Craig disenchanted with the political process and some senior White House officials frustrated with the operations of the counsel’s office. Some critics pointed to mistakes along the way, including the administration’s failure to anticipate congressional opposition to closing the detention facility.
Craig was also instrumental in working closely with Karl Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and his staff that resulted in Bush’s former political adviser, Karl Rove, testifying before the panel behind closed doors about the firings of nine federal prosecutors in 2006 and the apparent political prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. Craig also arranged a similar deal for former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
By urging Rove and the Judiciary Committee to reach a settlement, Obama’s Justice Department lawyers avoided going to federal court and taking a position on Bush’s broad claims of executive privilege, which the former president said extended beyond his presidency.
“The President is very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened,” Craig said in early March just as a deal to secure Rove and Miers’ testimony was reached. “But he is also mindful as President of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency. So, for that reason, he is urging both sides of this to settle.”
Bauer, Craig’s replacement, is Chair of the Political Law Group Perkins Coie LLP, was general counsel to the Obama presidential campaign and became the president’s personal lawyer after last year’s election, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reported Thursday.
Bauer’s wife, Anita Dunn, is Obama’s communications director. She resigned this week, a month after she told CNN that “Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.”
Ambinder noted that Bauer wrote his own blog—Soft Money Hard Law—tracking campaign and election law disputes and it’s in this area where he will play a crucial role in the administration.
An unnamed senior administration official told Ambinder that Bauer’s expertise in “election law isn’t just relevant so we can write great briefs in litigation.
“As we enter 2010, having clear rules of the road on what the White House and its staff can and cannot do to help Democratic candidates will become a critical aspect of the White House Counsel’s job — and there’s no lawyer in America who knows that better than Bob. Such skill is even more critical as we approach 2012 — and — here’s the wild card — if the Supreme Court does major violence to the campaign finance regulation regime (as most observers expect by June), then deciding how to try to rewrite those laws, or what to do in the wild west regime that will replace current law, will be a critical task. And who better to have on point than Bob Bauer.”
In a statement, Obama said Bauer is “well-positioned to lead the Counsel’s office as it addresses a wide variety of responsibilities, including managing the large amount of litigation the administration inherited, identifying judicial nominees for the federal courts, and assuring that White House officials continue to be held to the highest legal and ethical standards.”