To navigate legal quandaries, Biden leans on low-key counsel
Election lawsuits multiplying by the day. An obscure federal agency blocking the presidential transition. The very legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory under assault as supporters of Donald Trump riot at the Capitol.
Amid all the turmoil, lawyer Dana Remus was the voice of calm for Team Biden.
Fighting on multiple fronts as Biden’s top lawyer during the presidential transition, Remus made a lasting impression on her colleagues with her ability to block out the noise as she battled legal challenges and pushed ahead with the screening of Cabinet and judicial nominees. Now, she’s the White House counsel.
“You could be in the middle of the hurly-burly and have a conversation with her, and the sort of atmospheric anxiety doesn’t get in the way of the legal issues that you’re dealing with,” recalled Andrew Wright, who worked with Remus during the transition. “She’s not panicky, which is always a good thing in a lawyer.”
Remus’s toughest task may lie ahead: guiding Biden as the White House supports efforts to investigate and hold accountable those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection, while avoiding setting a precedent that could weaken the office of the presidency for generations to come.
Colleagues say the president would be hard-pressed to find a lawyer better suited for the moment.
Her office has helped Biden navigate legal decisions on pandemic policy, led the administration’s effort to make more judicial nominations to this point than any president since Richard Nixon and offered advice on how the president’s adult son, Hunter Biden, can go about selling his paintings without creating conflicts of interest.
Before working for Biden, Remus, 46, spent years as a judicial and ethics expert in academia, and served as President Barack Obama’s chief ethics lawyer in the final 14 months of his presidency. Her stint as Biden’s general counsel during the 2020 election was her first campaign job.
“I think what her credentials and her experience reflect is a clear determination by President Biden after the four-year, scandal-laden confuse-a-rama of the Trump administration that he was going to have a first-rate lawyer empowered with a strong background in ethics serve as his White House counsel,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said.
The work of Remus and her deputies hasn’t gone without critique, including knocks on how the administration went about extending a pandemic-era eviction moratorium even after the majority of Supreme Court justices signaled they would reject any additional extension without authorization from Congress.
Republicans and ethics lawyers also have pilloried the White House over the Hunter Biden artwork sale setup. Obama-era Office of Government Ethics chief Walter Schaub has called the art arrangement “the perfect mechanism for funneling bribes” to the president.
The road ahead for Remus only gets more challenging as lawmakers investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection press forward.
Biden has been asked to approve the early release of a vast swath of records from the Trump administration, including some that detail the last administration’s internal decision-making process, which is generally protected by executive privilege. Biden already has approved release of the first set of documents, a decision that Trump is in court trying to block.
Trump argues the records should be protected by Biden and the courts, and claims that allowing new presidents to open their predecessors’ vaults so quickly would undermine the presidency. It’s a risk Biden is taking that could come back to haunt him in increasingly acrimonious Washington, should his successor choose to release his papers early.
Biden, guided by Remus, has tried to preserve his ability to protect his own privilege, with an argument that the extraordinary circumstances of Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results justified waiving the privilege.
Remus, in a letter this month calling for the National Archives to release internal Trump documents, underscored the request was made under “unique and extraordinary circumstances” as “Congress is examining an assault on our Constitution and democratic institutions.” She consulted with the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department in preparing her advice for the president.
Neil Eggleston, White House counsel in the Obama administration, believes Remus’ legal reasoning is sound. Still, he said the moment is a delicate one for the institution of the presidency.
“Every time there’s a precedent you kind of worry: Is it going to get misused in the future?” said Eggleston, who hired Remus in 2015 to serve as the Obama White House ethics lawyer.
Remus’ work at the White House made an impression on Obama, who hired her to to serve as general counsel for his post-presidency foundation. Obama officiated at her wedding to Brett Holmgren, a national security official in his administration. The two, who have a young son, met while working at the Obama White House.
Holmgren is now an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.
In the West Wing, Remus has been able to deliver messages that Biden and top officials don’t always want to hear.
“She’s not one of these lawyers who uses the law as a cudgel to prevent creative policymaking, and so when she delivers a hard message — the ‘actually we can’t do this’ — I think people know that it comes from a place of honest legal analysis,” said White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice.
Colleagues say Remus, who was Academic All-American in crew her senior year at Harvard, hates the spotlight. She declined to comment for this story.
Her friends say she is unflinchingly loyal. After conservative Justice Samuel Alito, for whom she clerked, was savaged in a 2013 Washington Post column, Remus and another former clerk wrote a letter to the editor sticking up for him.
Michael Bosworth, a lawyer who worked with Remus in the White House counsel’s office in the Obama administration, said she had a talent for soliciting diverse opinions because “she wants to make a truly informed decision that is right on the facts and right on the law.”
In assembling her 33-person team for Biden’s counsel’s office, Remus put a premium on three qualities: kindness, diversity and the ability to work as a team, officials said. The office is 65% female, 20% LGBTQ+, 40% people of color, and the majority of them have public interest backgrounds.
White House officials say Remus’s efforts to diversify the judicial bench are one of the least appreciated early successes for the president, who pledged as a candidate to make his government more reflective of America.
More than 70% of the nominees are women and the majority of picks have been people of color. Remus has also put a particular focus on looking beyond big law firms and prosecutors to find candidates with backgrounds as public defenders, voting rights litigators and other public interest experience.
At the White House, Biden has surrounded himself with senior advisers he’s known and counted on for years. Still, White House officials say Remus has managed to break through even though she’s not in his inner circle.
“He knows when she walks in, she’s there to give him legal advice — not friendship advice, not political advice but legal advice,” Klain said. “I think a certain amount of professional detachment in that relationship is a better way to have it.”