One of the consequences of losing Democratic control of the House is the likelihood that White House officials are going to have to, as they say on the cop shows, lawyer up. In recent years, investigations have invariably followed when one party takes over a legislative chamber and the other party occupies the White House. The Clinton administration was pinned down by myriad investigations into Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, technology sales to the Chinese, foreign campaign money, and a slew of other areas that kept the White House Office of Legal Counsel one of the busiest in the West Wing.
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That’s sure to happen to the Obama White House, too, although the intensity is unlikely to reach Clintonesque levels. In any event, Robert Bauer will be at the center of the storm.
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At 58, the White House counsel is a Washington veteran and is immersed in the capital’s culture. His wife, Anita Dunn, is a prominent Democratic political consultant who served briefly in 2009 as White House communications director. Bauer’s specialty is election law. He doesn’t have the breadth of experience that some of the Clinton White House counsels had, such as Abner Mikva, the former House member from Illinois who was chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, or the late Lloyd Cutler, a Washington fixture who was White House counsel not only for Clinton but also for President Carter. Bauer can be a bit of a prankster. As Barack Obama’s campaign counsel during the 2008 presidential race, he once crashed a campaign conference call that Hillary Rodham Clinton was holding with reporters—something that’s hard to imagine Cutler, with his Georgetown mien, doing.
So far, Bauer doesn’t have a big blemish on his record. He succeeded Gregory Craig, a Washington rainmaker, who was faulted for his handling of the Guantanamo Bay prison closure, among other things. Bauer was able to negotiate some of the finer, more-contentious points in President Obama’s health care legislation, such as the question of abortion funding that divided anti-abortion Democrats from the rest of the party.
Bauer will need that delicate touch when dealing with Republicans, especially Rep. Darrell Issa, the Californian who is likely to chair the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the point of the spear for House investigations. During the 1990s, then-Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., had a reputation for prosecutorial zeal. He famously reenacted the suicide of Vince Foster, Clinton’s White House counsel at the time, using a gun and a watermelon. No one thinks that Issa will be so Javert-like, but he is likely to issue subpoenas aggressively, and Bauer will have to balance compliance and transparency with protecting the president politically and institutionally. “You have to remember that you’re not just the president’s lawyer,” says a former White House counsel, who declined to be quoted by name talking about a successor. “You are the lawyer for the presidency, and there are principles at stake.”