White House Takes Over Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan's Prep The Bush and Clinton administrations let the Justice Department take the lead in preparing Supreme Court nominees for Senate confirmation. But the Obama White House has been leading nominee Elena Kagan through the process. And that's part of a pattern, observers say.
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White House Takes Over Court Nominee's Prep

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White House Takes Over Court Nominee's Prep

White House Takes Over Court Nominee's Prep

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DAVID GREENE, host: The public face of the White House has been focused on that oil spill in the Gulf in Mexico. But behind the scenes, another massive effort is playing out. A team has been preparing Elena Kagan for her Supreme Court confirmation hearing. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has a look at the confirmation team.

ARI SHAPIRO: For the last two presidential administrations, if you wanted to see the place where a Supreme Court nominee was getting ready for confirmation, you would head to the Justice Department. That's where former Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand oversaw preparations for Samuel Alito and John Roberts to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Mock confirmation hearings took place in her conference room on the fourth floor.

Ms. RACHEL BRAND (Former U.S. assistant attorney general): It's a ceremonial conference room, you know, formal historical portraits of attorneys general on the walls, a big wooden conference table. And we would have the nominee sit on one side of the table and have four or five lawyers sit across from him, playing senators and throwing the questions out, back and forth.

SHAPIRO: During the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Justice Department was the nerve center for this process. But today, it has moved. If you see Elena Kagan walking the halls of Congress, it won't be a Justice official parting the sea of journalists as she approaches a senator.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to my office. I look forward to talking to you a little bit later.

Solicitor General ELENA KAGAN (Supreme Court nominee): Thank you very much, Senator.

SHAPIRO: Kagan's entourage includes members of the White House counsel's office and the vice president's staff. The mock confirmation hearings are expected to take place at the White House not the conference room where Bush administration lawyers grilled Roberts and Alito.

And at the Justice Department, well the man who occupies Rachel Brand's old job waited almost a year to be confirmed. He only moved into his office a few weeks ago. Professor Martha Kumar of Towson University studies the presidency.

Professor MARTHA KUMAR (Towson University): When you have so many positions at the deputy level that have not been filled, then I think you have no choice but to run the operation out of the White House.

SHAPIRO: But even if every agency had been fully staffed months ago, people in and outside of the administration say this is a controlling White House by nature. Projects that the Bush and Clinton administrations might have entrusted to the Department of Justice, State or Defense are now centered at the White House instead. That's true of national security policies, legislative initiatives and more.

Outside groups working on the Kagan confirmation complain that the White House is overbearing. Advocates say they felt pressure to endorse Kagan before they were ready, and they complain that the White House tries to micromanage interview requests for outside groups.

There's a daily conference call and a once a week meeting in person, to make sure the outside groups are singing from the White House's hymnal. And that's on top of the regular memos establishing talking points for the day.

One recent example, quote, "By making public Elena Kagan's college thesis, Elena Kagan and the Obama White House are raising the bar on transparency."

At the same time, these groups acknowledge that the clampdown worked during President Obama's last Supreme Court nomination, of Sonia Sotomayor, so they begrudgingly go along.

Professor Kumar of Towson, says this tendency to micromanage is not unusual for a young administration. And she says it could change with time.

Prof. KUMAR: Gradually, they learn to not just trust, but learn that there's so many things that can be done in the bureaucracy. And they learn that they just simply can't do everything out of the White House, because they're going to burn through people.

SHAPIRO: But for now, the Obama administration is even making a break with the old confirmation lingo. When asked about Kagan's war room, one White House official said that's a Clinton-era term. We call it a confirmation team.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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