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White House counsel stays behind the scenes while guiding Supreme Court nomination

White House counsel Dana Remus (left) and Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer O'Malley Dillon depart the White House on July 13, 2021. Remus is the "quarterback" of the effort to nominate a Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
White House counsel Dana Remus (left) and Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer O'Malley Dillon depart the White House on July 13, 2021. Remus is the "quarterback" of the effort to nominate a Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

White House counsel Dana Remus is working around the clock to help President Biden make history — logging hours on the phones, meeting with Republicans and supervising background checks so he can fulfill his promise to nominate a Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

In the words of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Remus is "the quarterback of this whole process."

But, unlike a star football player, Remus prefers to operate behind the scenes, whether she's shepherding a Supreme Court nomination or carrying out any other of her many duties as the White House's top lawyer.

A former law professor and ethics expert, Remus has racked up all sorts of elite credentials: graduating from Harvard and Yale Law School, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, serving in the Obama White House. Diverging from some of her D.C. contemporaries, she simply doesn't broadcast them. In keeping with that understated approach to life and the law, she declined an interview request.

Remus breaks the mold in other ways, too. Democratic presidents tend to choose judges or luminaries close to retirement to serve as their top attorney in the White House. Remus, though, is 46, with a toddler son at home.

Still, those who work close to her say Remus is the right person for this moment. This month, she and her team are driving the effort to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer and add the first Black woman to serve on the high court.

Working on Biden's campaign, Remus anticipated Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud

While working on Biden's presidential campaign, Remus met nightly with a group of senior lawyers during the run-up to the 2020 election, puzzling over what to do about former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud.

Remus anticipated trouble that could delay the vote count long before Jan. 6, so she briefed senators on how to defend the legitimacy of the slates of electors coming in from key states and made plans to rush to court, just in case.

"A lot of the extraordinary threats to the electoral process we had been speculating about were emerging in real time before our eyes," said Don Verrilli, a member of the group. "Dana ran that whole process with aplomb, and she made exactly the right judgments 100% of the time."

Sometimes the group disagreed about what to do. But Remus won, by being polite but firm.

"I've been on a call where she was with three former solicitors general, and she said why we were all three wrong and she was right. And, 'let's move on to the next question,' " former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, who was also part of the group, said in an interview with NPR last week, before his death.

Dellinger knew eight White House counsels going back to the Clinton administration and Remus is the "best of the bunch," he said.

Breaking records on judicial nominations

Her job description involves a huge portfolio of responsibilities that touches nearly every aspect of the Biden agenda and involves making quick decisions.

Just this week, Remus wrote to the National Archives, concluding that the White House would not assert executive privilege over most visitor logs from the Trump era, which are being sought by the Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots. She pointed out that the administration already treats most visitor logs as public information. And, she said, the Biden team has determined the Capitol Hill insurrection requires "a full accounting to ensure nothing similar ever happens again."

"I think what makes a good White House counsel, and what makes Dana a great White House counsel, is a combination of legal acumen, just raw legal horsepower, and an understanding of how the government works," Klain, the chief of staff, told NPR.

Parts of Biden's agenda have gotten a tough reception in the courts. And his legal bid to extend the eviction moratorium drew criticism even from some Democrats.

But Remus and her team have already broken records on the judge front, steering 40 judges to lifetime appointments in their first year. Eighty percent are women and more than half are people of color.

She's closely monitored diversity on her own staff, too. Two-thirds of the counsel staff are women, and 40% are people of color, according to spokesman Andrew Bates. More than 20% are LGBTQ, Bates said.

Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration, said Remus has a sophisticated understanding of her role.

"The White House counsel cannot do the entire job by herself, and she's put together a really experienced and terrific team," Eggleston said. "And my impression from talking to her is that she's done a really good job of delegating out responsibility while at the same time maintaining ultimate accountability."

President Biden hosts a meeting that includes White House counsel Dana Remus.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Biden hosts a meeting that includes White House counsel Dana Remus.

Across the political spectrum: Remus clerked for conservative Justice Alito, and was married by Democrat Obama

Remus is familiar with both the high court and the Senate.

She clerked for conservative Justice Alito and taught a class with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee. But her closest ties are with people from the Obama White House. That's where she met Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser.

"She was responsible for making sure that we were complying with all of our ethical rules and regulations, and President Obama's directive to Dana was to make sure we all colored well within the lines," Jarrett said. "And so I relied on her heavily for advice and counsel to ensure that we did that."

Obama officiated Remus' wedding in 2018 to another White House aide, Brett Holmgren, who's now working as an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Jarrett said Obama performed marriage ceremonies very rarely and that his participation speaks to his respect for Remus as a lawyer — and as a person.

The ceremony marked one of the few times that Remus has attracted tabloid coverage during her years in Washington. Her friends said lawyers know they're doing a good job when their names aren't in the newspapers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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