Cassandra Butts is leaving her job as a deputy in the White House Counsel's Office to become a senior adviser to a federal agency fighting global poverty.
It's among the most high-level departures this year from the office that provides legal advice to President Barack Obama, and it comes a month after Butts' boss, White House Counsel Gregory Craig, tamped down media rumors that he was about to leave.
Butts, a classmate of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, will become a senior adviser at the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Congress and President George W. Bush created the corporation in 2003 to help countries reduce poverty and grow their economies.
In a statement, Obama called Butts a “dear friend and trusted colleague.”
“Cassandra brings a depth of experience and true passion for justice that will be invaluable to [the corporation’s] success in the future,” Obama said. “I am grateful for Cassandra’s tireless service in this administration and look forward to continuing to work with her in the years ahead.”
Pressed on the reasons for her move, a White House spokesman said it reflects the priority Obama is placing on the global fight against poverty. He declined to make Butts available for an interview.
Butts was general counsel to the presidential transition that began a year ago. Previously, she was a senior vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress and a top aide to then-presidential candidate and House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). She has also been an assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
Gephardt, in a brief interview today, praised Butts’ experience and intelligence. He said her new position, while not in the White House, likely has its own advantages. “I’m sure there are a lot of important things that go on there,” he said, referring to the White House Counsel’s Office, “but this gives her kind of a portfolio of her own.”
The White House today described Butts’ primary portfolio as judicial nominations, a high profile area that also demands intense secrecy among staff lawyers. In the days after Justice David Souter announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, Butts was in frequent contact with the president’s eventual nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, according to Sotomayor’s Senate questionnaire.
In February, Butts was rumored to be a candidate to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a nomination that went to Jacqueline Berrien, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Another deputy White House counsel left in the spring. Neal Wolin, who had been deputy counsel for economic policy, was nominated and confirmed as deputy secretary of the Treasury Department.
The White House did not announce anyone to fill Butts’ position as deputy counsel. Two others hold similar positions, according to the most recent public list: Daniel Meltzer, a longtime Harvard Law professor who is principal deputy, and Mary DeRosa, deputy counsel for national security who previously worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
UPDATE (4:34 p.m.): Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic reports that one Millennium Challenge staff member "learned of the news from a Twitter post."
UPDATE II (5:40 p.m.): Bryan Cave partner Broderick Johnson, a friend of Butts', said that global poverty is a "life cause" for her. He noted that Butts was an international election observer to the Zimbabwean parliamentary elections in 2000.
"She’s a deeply compassionate person who cares about equity and ending poverty and a healthy relationship between the United States and the rest of the world," Johnson said in an interview.