The office of the White House counsel has undergone a rapid changeover during the weeks since Kathryn Ruemmler took over as President Barack Obama's top lawyer.
The latest hire is Leslie Kiernan, who started on Monday as a deputy counsel to the president. Kiernan was a longtime partner at Zuckerman Spaeder who focused on white-collar defense and congressional investigations, including representing Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) during most of a lengthy House ethics probe. In 2009, she did some outside work for Obama by interviewing Justice Sonia Sotomayor prior to her Supreme Court nomination.
Kiernan is one of three deputy counsel reporting to Ruemmler. The other two are Kimberley Harris, a former Davis Polk & Wardwell partner who most recently was an associate counsel to the president, and Avril Haines, who first joined the White House counsel and National Security Council staffs last year.
Also recently added to the office’s senior staff are Steven Croley, who joins from Obama’s domestic policy office, and Chris Kang, who was on Obama’s legislative affairs staff and will now be in charge of judicial nominations. Both have the title of senior counsel.
The president’s legal shop has been in transition since June, when Robert Bauer said he would step down as White House counsel so he could return to Perkins Coie and advise Obama’s reelection campaign. Ruemmler was Bauer’s top deputy.
Ruemmler said she looked for a broad array of experiences while assembling her new staff — lawyers who have spent time working in international law, criminal matters, ethics and administrative law.
“What you can’t do in this job is you can’t really anticipate what’s going to come at you, so we have to be prepared for a variety of scenarios, and I feel terrific about how prepared we are,” Ruemmler said in a brief telephone interview today.
The White House Counsel’s Office has been pulled recently into several highly visible debates. Ruemmler has traded letters with House Republicans over the rules for using the White House for campaign activities, and her office advised Obama on the possible use of the 14th Amendment to bypass the statutory debt limit. Before he left, Bauer advised Obama on the legality of continued operations in Libya without congressional authorization.
Ruemmler’s three deputies — all women, an apparent first — come from varied backgrounds and will have somewhat different specialties.
Harris left Davis Polk in 2009 to join the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division as a senior counsel to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer. Since moving to the White House, she has overseen the administration’s response to stepped-up Republican oversight — a task she is continuing, along with associate counsel Edward Siskel and others. From a spot near Ruemmler’s in the West Wing, Harris will also help manage the counsel’s office.
Kiernan has spent most of her career in private practice, serving at one point on Zuckerman’s executive committee, but she also served on the staff of what was then the House Banking Committee. Her focus is expected to be on ethics compliance and the vetting of presidential appointees, but her portfolio will be broad, including judicial nominations and strategic advice.
Haines focuses on national security and doubles as the legal adviser to the National Security Council. She succeeds Mary DeRosa, whom Obama nominated in July to be part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. Before joining the White House staff, Haines was in the office of the State Department legal adviser and was deputy chief counsel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In addition to Ruemmler and DeRosa, the deputies under Bauer were Donald Verrilli Jr., now the solicitor general, and Susan Davies, who’s planning to teach at Harvard Law School this fall.
Croley, one of the senior counsel, is on leave as a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. When he was in Obama’s domestic policy office, his work on gun issues got him a profile in The Washington Post. He specializes in administrative law, and he spent four years as a special assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan. He also advised the presidential transition in 2008-09, according to his school profile.
Kang succeeds Davies as the lawyer responsible for running the judicial-nomination process. As one of the White House’s lobbyists, he worked on the nominations of Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. Before Obama’s election, he worked for Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
Updated at 5:32 p.m.