The ugliness surrounding the pushing out of White House Counsel Gregory Craig was months in the making, but culminated on the day on which the White House announced that the Justice Department would be prosecuting Guantanamo prisoners on U.S. soil, the very project Craig was supposedly brought into the administration to bring about.
Last Friday it remained unclear why Craig was being shown the door, but it was clear he had angered several different constituencies. Rumors -- some generated by current Hillary Clinton allies at the State Department -- swirled that Craig had failed to gain the proper security clearances for his job, or that he had run afoul of the First Lady's staff in not moving quickly enough to clear several staffers. Another rumor had him angering White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett for not supporting her hand-picked political appointees, such as former Obama aide Van Jones. Yet another had him being caught out leaking far too many details about the Obama Administration's failed Gitmo effort.
Craig, who is considered one of the more connected of the Washington insiders brought into the Obama administration, but who long had been associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton due to his role as one of then-President Clinton's attorneys during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment process, had been rumored to be leaving his White House post for several months. That the Clinton operation was seeking to smear Craig raised some eyebrows, but Craig made a fateful decision last year to support Obama, and wrote a famous op-ed during the primary season that was seen as an attempt to break through Hillary Clinton's wall of donors and political support. "We've had it out for him for quite a while," says one current Clinton loyalist who is not in the administration. "Everyone gets a second chance, but before that can happen, one needs to some penance. Greg is getting his penance."
But the main reason most often cited for Craig's exit was his failure to successfully manage a multi-Cabinet department process to shut down Gitmo and relocate more than 200 terrorists held there to other secure facilities. The shutting down of Guantanamo is but one of several high-profile promises Obama has failed to deliver on to his most leftist and ardent supporters.
Craig was managing one of the largest White House staffs, with far more attorneys and staffers on White House Counsel's Office payroll than at any time in the Bush Administration. It rivals the Counsel's Office staffing level of the Clinton impeachment era. At the start of the Administration, Craig's staff took on a decidedly political edge, and it included the White House's political opposition researcher in its ranks. Within several months, that staffer left, and the post was moved back to the Democratic National Committee, where Obama's own political operation is now housed.
But more mysterious than Craig's exit was the announced move eight days ago by Craig's deputy, Cassandra Butts, a Harvard classmate of Obama's and one of the administration's highest-ranking African Americans. Earlier this month, the White House announced she was leaving to become counsel to Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Butts was believed to be the White House point person in vetting a number of high profile Obama appointments, not the least of whom was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Butts was viewed as one of Obama's closest "Harvard friends" in the administration, a group that had known Obama for a number of years, and worked tirelessly on his behalf to get him to the position he holds today.
After Butts quietly resigned on Friday, November 6, friends began calling reporters to insist her resignation had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with her desire to work in the anti-poverty arena, an issue she cares about. "The whispers had already started that there was something odd going on here," says a former Butts colleague in the White House counsel's office. "We were really caught off guard by her resignation, but everyone here has been kind of on high alert for several weeks now. A lot of meetings behind closed doors, that kind of stuff."
The result is that Craig and Butts -- two respected attorneys -- are on the outside of a White House, and Obama's personal attorney, Robert Bauer, who has worked on a number of Obama personal issues over the past five years, is now taking the Counsel job.
In the capacity as Obama's personal attorney, Bauer has worked on issues related to Obama's ties to former Obama fundraiser and friend and now convicted felon, Tony Rezko, Obama's convoluted birth certificate and citizenship law suit, which was dismissed by the courts as frivolous, Obama's ties to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He also has knowledge of Obama's work as a community organizer and his other efforts going back to the Obama's days in Chicago and, further back, New York.
Beyond his efforts as Obama's personal attorney, Bauer also served as Obama's key campaign lawyer, and had associates and partners from his law firm coordinating and working for just about every major labor union and special interest group with ties to the Obama campaign, including the Service Employees International Union. Bauer also served as counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and has been serving as chief counsel to the Democrat National Committee, where he oversaw the integration of Obama's campaign operation, Organizing for America, into the party's infrastructure.
Bauer is also married to now-former White House communications director Anita Dunn, whose resignation earlier this month sparked the rumors that Craig's exit -- and her husband's ascension -- were imminent.
The Craig to Bauer shift is viewed as a move made, in large part, by Rahm Emanuel, who some White House insiders say is already looking to a 2010 election cycle that will require unprecedented involvement by the White House to maintain workable majorities in both the House and the Senate. As well, while the Tony Rezko trials may be over, the prosecution of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and several associates will begin early next year, and the case built by current U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald may enmesh the President, not only because Rezko, a close friend to Obama, who helped him buy a home (in a deal that may have been handled, in part, by Bauer), is deeply involved in the Blagojevich scandals, as are a number of other Obama supporters and allies. Some former Obama staffers from the Senate point to the recent plea agreement of former Blagojevich chief of staff Alonzo "Lon" Monk, who has ties to Obama and Rezko, as an event that had some senior White House officials wary of the direction Fitzgerald might take the Blagojevich trial.
"[Bauer] knows where all the bodies are buried, and this indicates that there is something amiss with this White House, or at least someone is nervous about what is going on," says a former Obama transition team adviser. "You don't just make these kinds of changes for the sake of rearranging the deck chairs, and not at this time with at least three legislative and policy decisions looming that the Counsel's office would have been deeply involved in."
"This doesn't come close to the 'Saturday Night Massacre' in the Nixon days, but it's pretty damn weird," says Washington, D.C.-based Democrat lawyer, who has held counsel positions both in the Senate and in previous presidential administrations. "I'm surprised not only that the press seems to be ignoring the fact that two presidential lawyers have left at about the same time, but that no one seems to care that for the first time, I think ever, we have a President's personal attorney also serving as White House counsel. I don't care if Bob [Bauer] recuses himself from future personal legal business, this should be troubling to anyone who cares about the Executive Office of the President."