As White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler guides the presidents decisions… (Pat Sullivan/AP )
Kathryn Ruemmler does not fit the mold of an Obama confidante. She doesn’t know Barack Obama from his days in Chicago, and she never toiled on his campaigns. She doesn’t golf with him on weekends or blow off steam with him on the basketball court.
Yet this blunt-spoken former prosecutor has become a trusted member of President Obama’s inner circle. As White House counsel, Ruemmler guides the president’s decisions on issues ranging from the war on terrorism to Cabinet and judicial nominations to immigration policy.
And in the second term, when scandal and failure historically abound, Ruemmler has emerged as the protector of the presidency — and the focus of growing criticism of the White House’s insular and often secretive posture.
“She’s tenacious, tough, skilled and a good manager,” said David Plouffe, a longtime Obama political adviser who left the White House in January. He said she faces “intense crucibles.”
Ruemmler’s office is the response center for investigations of the White House, and it is she who negotiates with House Republicans exercising their subpoena and oversight powers. The 42-year-old lawyer sees her mission in part as keeping Obama and his top appointees out of their path.
Her role has made her office the focus of controversy in recent weeks over the White House’s handling of three incidents: the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the administration’s response to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records in leak investigations.
It was Ruemmler’s decision, for example, not to tell Obama about the findings of the inspector general’s audit of the IRS and to resist congressional demands to release drafts of talking points on last fall’s Benghazi attack on the grounds that it would violate executive privilege.
In the case of the IRS, Ruemmler — who got her first experience navigating scandal as a young associate in the White House counsel’s office in the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency — was shielding Obama from even the appearance of trying to influence the investigation, officials said.
Republicans aren’t buying it.
“The president claims openness and transparency, but that never, ever happens,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in an interview about relations with Ruemmler’s office. “Even when we ask the most basic questions, their standard operating procedure is they don’t respond.”
A ‘vote of confidence’
In 2011, when Obama had to replace White House counsel Robert F. Bauer, his longtime confidant who left to work on the reelection campaign, the president was looking for a lawyer who wouldn’t be afraid to give him candid advice, aides say. Bauer, who had recruited Ruemmler to be his deputy counsel a year earlier, believed that she fit the bill.
“At points I would throw out an idea, and she would say, ‘There’s no way in the world you’ll ever want to do that; that’s ridiculous,’ ” Bauer recalled. “There was no attempt, ever, by Kathy to put even light icing on the cake.”
Obama’s White House is a particularly insular place, populated with aides — such as deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco and senior advisers Pete Rouse and Dan Pfeiffer — who have worked for Obama since his 2008 campaign or earlier. By contrast, Ruemmler was an outsider who had virtually no relationship with the president.
This concerned Obama, Plouffe said. Of all the conversations a president has, those with his counsel are perhaps the most candid. Still, at Bauer’s strong urging, Obama promoted Ruemmler.
“He really relied on Bob’s vote of confidence here,” Plouffe said.
Early on, Obama’s White House became known for a frat-boy atmosphere in which rough language abounded. Big personalities such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs soaked up the oxygen, and some women complained that they felt marginalized.
Ruemmler, who goes by Kathy, is one of the few women who has been able to break into the club.
“She doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid, which I think is a remarkable thing for a White House counsel,” said John M. Dowd, a Washington lawyer and Ruemmler friend. “You don’t want a sycophant or a big cheerleader.”
Ruemmler made her mark in her mid-30s when she was one of three lead prosecutors in the high-profile case against Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who were convicted on securities and wire fraud charges.
The trial also gained Ruemmler notice for a more superficial reason: her shoes. During the proceedings in 2006, she paired a conservative gray suit with what the Wall Street Journal described as “stunning 4-inch bright pink stiletto spikes.” This inspired Above the Law, a legal affairs blog, to dub her a “superstar litigatrix.”