Updated with the audio.
The possible departure of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel could shore up the standing of another prominent member of the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
That’s according to Gregory Craig, who served as counsel to President Barack Obama until January. Craig had a contentious working relationship with Emanuel on issues of national security, as has Holder, but now Emanuel is considering resigning to run for mayor of Chicago.
Craig’s views on the subject weren’t meant to be public. A live microphone picked up the chatter as he prepared to give a speech recently at Columbia Law School.
“The great thing about it, if Rahm goes to run for mayor, is that Eric survived,” Craig said, according to an audio recording of the Sept. 21 event.
The National Law Journal requested a copy of the recording from the law school, and the school provided one. The recording includes Craig’s speech and a question-and-answer session, as well as two and a half minutes of pre-speech banter between Craig and Trevor Morrison, a Columbia law professor who introduced Craig to the audience. They touched on Holder’s relationship with Emanuel and on the case of accused terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.
As Craig suggests, Emanuel’s departure would mean Holder will have outlasted an internal rival with whom, according to news reports, Holder has repeatedly clashed on subjects like the venue for trying terrorism suspects. And it would mean Emanuel wouldn’t be around to attempt to force Holder out if tensions flared again.
Craig’s thoughts on Holder’s staying power got a positive response from Morrison, who worked for Obama as an associate White House counsel. “It’s like a miracle,” Morrison said.
“They were after him,” Craig added.
A high point of tension between Emanuel and Holder came in February. After the involvement of White House officials, Holder reversed a decision he had announced in November that prosecutors would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other suspected 9/11 conspirators in federal court in Manhattan. Neither Holder nor the White House has announced a new plan.
Craig, answering questions after his Columbia speech, returned to the subject of Emanuel when addressing his own departure from the White House. A questioner asked Craig why he left. Craig responded that he did so for “a number of different reasons,” and then he focused squarely on Emanuel.
“One of the reasons was that I did not get along with the chief of staff well,” Craig said, “and I think that the coordination between the White House counsel and the chief of staff is vital to the success of the working of the White House.”
The comment is the first time that Craig, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has publicly discussed the tensions between him and Emanuel, though those tensions have been the subject of multiple news stories.
Before Craig’s speech, he and Morrison also discussed Ghailani’s case. Ghailani is the first and only detainee whom the Obama administration has transferred from Guantanamo Bay to the mainland United States for civilian trial, and Morrison described the U.S. Department of Justice’s handling of the June 2009 move.
“That was a transfer that happened without people thinking all the way around the corner,” Morrison told Craig. “DOJ basically told us, ‘We’re moving this (inaudible) guy.’ They hadn’t baked the cake.”
“I thought they don’t do those things until they bake the cake,” Craig said.
“They really did not,” Morrison said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office claims they were barely even consulted. It was just a Main Justice thing.”
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan considered throwing out the government’s case against Ghailani because he was held for years without being tried, raising questions about his right to a speedy trial. In July, Kaplan ruled in favor of the Justice Department. Morrison’s statement suggests that, at least from the perspective of the White House, the department had not fully thought through the consequences of charging Ghailani in a civilian court.
Craig, reached by phone, declined to comment on the audio recording. “I don’t remember that conversation, and even if it occurred, it was off the record,” Craig said.
Morrison, also reached by phone, backed away from having direct knowledge of the Ghailani case. “Certainly no part of my job at the White House included any of that,” he said. He added in e-mails that he doesn’t remember any disagreement within the Obama administration on trying Ghailani in federal court, and that he doesn’t think the consultation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was anything other than normal and appropriate.
Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said that Morrison’s description in the audio recording of Ghailani’s case is “inaccurate.” Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, Miller said, were “obviously fully involved in the Ghailani transfer given that they handled his indictment, initial court appearance and every other step of the case.”
Miller declined to comment on Holder’s relationship with Emanuel.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.