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The White House Counsel’s Office


Press Secretary, the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, the Attorney General, the Office of
Management and Budget (on the legislative process), the General Counsels of the departments and
agencies, and most especially, the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice (see
Relationships section). In addition to the Counsel, the Office usually consists of one or two Deputy
Counsels, a varying number of Associate and Assistant Counsels, a Special Counsel when scandals
arise, a Senior Counsel in some administrations, and support staff. Tasks are apportioned to these
positions in various ways, depending on the Counsel’s choices, though most Counsels expect all
Office members to share the ongoing vetting for presidential appointments (see Organization and
Operations section).
Certain responsibilities within the Office are central at the very start of an administration (e.g.,
vetting for initial nominations and shepherding the appointment process through the Senate), while
others have a cyclical nature to them (e.g., the annual budget, the State of the Union message), and
still others follow an electoral cycle (e.g., determining whether presidential travel and other activities
are partisan/electoral/campaign or governmental ones) (see Organization and Operations). There is,
of course, the always unpredictable (but almost inevitable) flurry of scandals and crises, in which all
eyes turn to the Counsel’s Office for guidance and answers. Watergate, Iran-contra, Whitewater, the
Clinton impeachment, the FBI files and White House Travel Office matters and the response to
congressional investigations after the 2006 Democratic take-over of Congress all were managed from
the Counsel’s Office, in settings that usually separated scandal management from the routine work of
the Office, so as to permit ongoing operations to continue with minimal distraction. Among the
more regular tasks that occur throughout an administration are such jobs as directing the judicial
nomination process, reviewing legislative proposals (the president’s, those from departments and
agencies, and bills Congress has passed that need the Counsel’s recommendation for presidential
signature or veto), editing and clearing presidential statements and speeches, writing executive orders,
and determining the application of executive privilege (see both Relationships and Organization and
Operations sections).
Perhaps, the most challenging task for the Counsel is being the one who has the duty to tell the
president “no,” especially when it comes to defending the constitutional powers and prerogatives of
the presidency. Lloyd Cutler, Counsel for both Presidents Carter and Clinton, noted that, in return
for being “on the cutting edge of problems,” the Counsel needs to be someone who has his own
established reputation…someone who is willing to stand up t o the President, to say, “No, Mr.
President, you shouldn’t do that for these reasons.” There is a great tendency among all presidential
staffs to be very sycophantic, very sycophantic. It’s almost impossible to avoid, “This man is the
President of the United States and you want to stay in his good graces,” even when he is about to do
something dumb; you don’t tell him that. You find some way to put it in a very diplomatic manner.
(Cutler interview, pp. 3-4)
A helpful way to understand the Counsel’s Office is to see it as sitting at the intersection of law,
politics and policy. Consequently, it confronts the difficult and delicate task of trying to reconcile all
three of these without sacrificing too much of any one. It is the distinctive challenge of the Counsel’s
Office to advise the president to take actions that are both legally sound and politically astute. A 1994
article in Legal Times warned of the pitfalls:
Because a sound legal decision can be a political disaster, the presidential counsel constantly
sacrifices legal ground for political advantage. (Bendavid, 1994, p. 13)

For example, A.B. Culvahouse recalled his experience upon arriving at the White House as counsel
and having to implement President Reagan’s earlier decision to turn over his personal diaries to
investigators during the Iran-contra scandal.