White House Counsel Fielding Is Used to Scandal

Senators angry about the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year will vote on a new round of subpoenas this week. The subpoenas would call White House personnel before the Judiciary Committee to talk about whose idea it was to fire the U.S. attorneys, and why.

The White House is considering its position on whether Congress can make that demand without violating the constitutional separation of powers, and one man is key to the negotiations — White House counsel Fred Fielding. It's a role with which he is quite familiar.

Fielding served as President Ronald Reagan's White House counsel. Talking about that administration in a 2004 interview with Legal Times, Fielding said, "If there were mistakes made, or if there were problems that arose, they were dealt with right away. That, to me, was the essence of my job."

It also appears to be the essence of his current job, one he acquired two months ago, replacing former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. Fielding has been trying for days now to reach some agreement with Congress on testimony by White House aides. Those who know him say that if anyone can find a solution, Fielding can.

"One of the things he brings is an ability to tell the president of the United States straight talk," says Ken Duberstein, President Reagan's White House chief of staff. "He is somebody who I have seen tell the president what the president needs to know, not just what the president wants to know." And in the current tug-of-war, Duberstein thinks that will serve this White House well.

This doesn't mean that Fielding, who has worked for three Republican presidents, isn't a strong proponent of executive privilege. He is.

"But he's also a realistic proponent," says attorney Alan Morrison, of Stanford Law School, who has known Fielding for more than 35 years. "He knows how to spell subpoena. And he knows that the members of the Senate and the House know how to spell it too. And I don't think he really wants to have a fight over something which will just keep dragging on in the newspapers for weeks at a time."

If Fielding has learned anything during his years in Washington, it is that scandals need to be dealt with quickly. The 67-year-old attorney got his start as deputy White House counsel in the Nixon administration. And in a sign of history repeating itself, Morrison and Fielding met in 1971 when Morrison worked in the U.S. attorney's office in New York, which was trying to stop The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

"Fred was sent up to baby-sit our office because the office had a reputation then, and still does, of being quite independent and the White House was concerned about it," Morrison recalls.

Fielding's boss at the time was White House Counsel John Dean. Dean describes Fielding as a careful, meticulous lawyer. He is also someone who is pleasant and likes to keep a low profile, says Dean. "And the task he's got right now is to not escalate the whole matter until it comes to a confrontation, and if anybody can do it, he can do it."

Dean says one of Fielding's biggest challenges is that he is representing an unusually secretive administration. "A lot of his negotiations aren't going to be on Capitol Hill, they're going to be right within the fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

But that's also something Fielding has encountered before, as a member of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. Colleagues say Fielding helped convince the administration to turn over crucial documents and allow presidential aides to publicly testify about the months leading up to the attacks.

Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste says the current situation could prove more challenging. Congress is now in the hands of Democrats, who are in no mood to cut the administration any slack.

"Fred is very skilled and he's very realistic. But sometimes the situations [he's presented with] go beyond simple compromise. This may be one of them," says Ben-Veniste.

It should become clearer later this week if that's the case.

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