Fielding Dispatched to Quell Hill Furor

Posted March 14, 2007 at 6:48pm

Absent from the furor over the U.S. attorneys scandal until now has been one big name from the White House: veteran counsel Fred Fielding.

The 67-year-old Washington, D.C., lawyer was in private practice when the eight prosecutors were fired in a coordinated campaign between the Justice Department and the White House.

But now Fielding is back at the center of a political and legal firestorm as Bush’s new White House counsel. As Senate Democrats threaten to subpoena top White House officials, and the Bush administration decides how cooperative to be with an angry Congress, Fielding will be calling the shots.

Fielding began to reach out to key lawmakers Wednesday on the U.S. attorneys issue, and early indications are that he may represent a new era of collaboration with Congress, though it’s unclear how limited it will be.

Fielding came to the Hill Wednesday to brief House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been leading the probe on the Senate side. Also in the meeting were Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and subcommittee ranking member Chris Cannon (R-Utah).

Schumer remarked that Fielding “expressed a desire to cooperate” in the Democrats’ quest to obtain further documents and witnesses such as testimony from Fielding’s predecessor, Harriet Miers, and White House adviser Karl Rove.

“He certainly was trying to give us the feeling that we should be hopeful and that we would get the information,” Schumer said. “I urged Mr. Fielding not to assert [executive] privilege … and he said he would try to work that out.”

Schumer added that Fielding pledged a response by Friday. The New York Democrat would like White House officials to follow the same procedures apparently agreed to by the Justice Department: documents, followed by depositions and possibly public hearings.

Fielding could not be reached Wednesday, but friends and former colleagues agreed that the veteran of Washington political wars may surprise Democrats by attempting to comply with their requests in a variety of thorny legal matters.

But they stressed he likely would not do so at the expense of his boss and presidential prerogatives like executive privilege, which the Bush White House has repeatedly asserted.

“The Bush secrecy is absurd and I just don’t think Fred buys into that stuff,” said ex-White House counsel John Dean, who hired a young Fielding as his deputy counsel in the Nixon White House.

“If there are reasonable requests from the Hill and they’re legitimate and it really is not privileged, then I think he’ll do more negotiating inside the White House than without.”

Fielding was the first person to tell Dean about the infamous Watergate break-in. But from then on, Dean said he intentionally excluded his deputy from Watergate discussions.

“He was a bit unhappy about it because he didn’t understand why he was getting cut out of it,” Dean recalled.

But that left Fielding unmarred by one of the biggest presidential scandals in history and even cast suspicion on him as the identity of “Deep Throat,” the secret source who leaked information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Fielding went on to have a long Washington career that included a stint from 1981 to 1986 as President Ronald Reagan’s White House counsel, in which he told former Secretary of State Alexander Haig he was wrong to assert presidential authority after Reagan was shot. He served as counsel during President Bush’s 2000 transition before heading to private practice at Wiley Rein and Fielding.

“I have always felt that if you ever had a really serious problem, Fred would be the person to go to. He always knows how to handle things properly and how to get to a good result, or at least an acceptable one,” said Helgi Walker, a former Bush White House associate counsel who worked with Fielding at Wiley Rein and on the Bush transition team.

“I think he went back [to the White House] out of a sense of true service. Fred didn’t need to do this job again,” Walker added.

“Fred has been in environments more contentious than [this] and is always the person that is able to keep everybody calm.”

The U.S. attorneys scandal is not the only legal mess Fielding will have to contend with in his new role heading the White House legal shop.

Fielding will have to wade through prickly legal questions on subjects ranging from domestic surveillance powers to excesses of Iraq contractors, the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the legal limbo of U.S. detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

But even Democrats — some of whom served with Fielding on the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — said Congress may be surprised by Fielding’s openness.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said Fielding often was the point man in encouraging White House officials to provide documents needed for the 9/11 commission’s investigation.

“He negotiated with the White House counsel when we were trying to get access to documents and witnesses,” Kerrey said. “He pushed them.”

The Nebraska Democrat added that he believed Fielding would try to be forthcoming when the circumstances permitted, even if he was ultimately the president’s man.

“If the president wants him to stonewall, he’ll stonewall. He’ll be the president’s counsel,” Kerrey predicted.

But, the Democrat added, “He knows that there are times when the answer is no, and there are times when the answer ought to be yes,” Kerrey said.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.