The top lawyer in the White House is stepping down after more than a year-and-a-half in the role, NPR has learned.
White House counsel Dana Remus made history by helping to confirm the first Black woman for the U.S. Supreme Court. She also set records for appointing dozens of lower court judges with diverse professional experiences, selecting public defenders and civil rights attorneys for posts that carry a lifetime tenure.
Current deputy White House counsel Stuart Delery will replace Remus, who has served now-President Joe Biden for three years, as a top adviser in his campaign and, later, his chief lawyer. Among her many duties: playing a key role behind the scenes in Biden’s decision not to assert executive privilege over documents and testimony about the siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The constitutional protections of executive privilege should not be used to shield, from Congress or the public, information that reflects a clear and apparent effort to subvert the Constitution itself,” Remus wrote in a letter to the National Archives last year.
Associates said the job has been a pressure cooker from the start. During the campaign, Remus launched a war room that included three former solicitors general and hundreds of volunteer attorneys who prepared to fight in — and outside of — court as former President Donald Trump contested the election.
“There were few people more pivotal in making sure the president got into office as Dana was,” said Jeff Zients, co-chair of the Biden transition team and former counselor to the president.
“A lot of the extraordinary threats to the electoral process we had been speculating about were emerging in real time before our eyes,” Don Verrilli, a member of the group, told NPR. “Dana ran that whole process with aplomb, and she made exactly the right judgments 100% of the time.”
Once in the White House, Remus made diversity a top priority. Nearly three quarters of Biden’s judicial nominees are women. Nearly one in three are Black and nearly one in three have experience as public defenders.
That emphasis carried over into the legal ranks in the White House counsel’s office, too. The founding team there included a majority of women and people with public interest backgrounds.
An administration official said her replacement, Delery, 53, is believed to be the first openly gay person to serve as White House counsel.
He’s currently handling such high-profile issues as the administration’s pandemic response.
Before that, Delery worked in high-ranking posts in the Obama Justice Department, where he led the effort to implement Supreme Court’s landmark decision on LGBTQ+ rights in United States v. Windsor across the federal government. The Human Rights Campaign called that effort the single largest conferral of rights to LGBTQ people in history.” Earlier in his career, Delery clerked for Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Byron White. He and his husband have two children.
“My family is the most important thing in the world to me,” Delery told NPR in 2014. “One of the critical insights … of the Windsor decision from the Supreme Court was that same-sex married couples face the same joys and challenges as their opposite-sex married neighbors.”
Verrilli, who worked as Solicitor General during the Obama years, said he interacted with Delery throughout that era.
“He is known and trusted by the President and the White House senior leadership,” Verrilli said. “He is a calm and steady presence. He has excellent judgment. And he is the consummate team player.”
Avoiding self-promotion and focusing on the work
Remus, 46, prefers to work outside the limelight. She did not agree to an interview for a story about her departure from government service.
But Ketanji Brown Jackson, the Supreme Court justice who will start work next term, thought enough of Remus to express thanks “for the awe-inspiring leadership” after her Senate confirmation in April. Jackson will be the first Black woman on the high court, and the first person with public defense experience since Justice Thurgood Marshall.
In the short term, a White House official said Remus plans to spend more time with her husband and toddler son.
Remus addressed the arc of her career last month, in a commencement speech at Drexel University’s law school.
“I joined a political campaign for the first time in my life when I was five months pregnant,” Remus told graduates. “I decided by what felt right; felt exciting; what inspired me. And it worked out. Looking back, I wish I could tell my younger self not to worry so much.”
White House chief of staff Ron Klain said he’d miss Remus “immensely, as a great friend and colleague, but I know we’re in great hands with Stuart, who has played a key role in all of the office’s work since day one.”
Robert Bauer, White House counsel during the Obama administration, said the approach by Remus and Delery of avoiding self-promotion and focusing on the work could be a model for other aspiring lawyers.
“It goes to show you, there’s another way in Washington that’s possible: their performance,” Bauer said.