Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm’s Role on Obama’s National Security Team—Who Knew?

In a new book that offers dramatic details on Rahm’s time as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, our mayor comes off as more of a heavyweight on national security issues than I ever imagined. So much so that one could credit him with a key role in killing Osama bin Laden, not to mention in promoting the drone strikes that have been eliminating top al-Qaeda’s terrorists at a steady clip…

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency by Daniel KlaidmanIn a new book that offers dramatic details on Rahm’s time as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, our mayor comes off as more of a heavyweight on national security issues than I ever imagined. So much so that one could credit him with a key role in killing Osama bin Laden, not to mention in promoting the drone strikes that have been eliminating top al-Qaeda’s terrorists at a steady clip. The most recent and the biggest “get”: Abu Yahya al-Libi, the group’s second-in-command in Pakistan near the Afghan border, on the very day (Tuesday), that Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, by Daniel Klaidman, was published.

One thing for sure: Rahm is in there with the big boys—his image shares the book’s cover with President Obama, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta, and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Newsweek correspondent Klaidman has written a fly-on-the-wall, Chicago-centric, Washington book that is bursting with drama and descriptions of Rahm that seem accurate: a one-dimensional ramrod of a character; relentlessly tough, profane, desk-pounding, and loyal to one man, his boss, the President; a centrist focused on getting Obama re-elected—principles and promises be damned. (In Klaidman’s portrayal, Emanuel’s range of emotion goes from angry to furious.)

At the center is Rahm’s toxic relationship with Eric Holder, a personal/social friend of the President’s; Holder’s wife, Sharon Malone, is  extremely close to  Michelle. Since meeting Holder at a Washington dinner party in 2004 shortly after becoming Senator from Illinois, Obama has identified with his pick for AG—an African American and fellow Columbia grad who was Janet Reno’s deputy in the Clinton administration, and, briefly, acting Attorney General. Holder’s reputation was tarnished by his involvement in the Marc Rich pardon, which temporarily felled Bill Clinton on his way out of the White House in January 2001.   

Klaidman paints Rahm, for all his self-assurance, as envious of the personal tie between the Obamas and the Holders. Obama’s confidante but not his buddy, Emanuel received no invites to Camp David or to Martha’s Vineyard.

Here are some highlights of Klaidman’s reporting on the conflict between Tammany Hall and the Aspen Institute—the designations, respectively, for Rahm’s brand of practical politics as opposed to Holder’s lofty idealism. (The president, in this telling, often found himself whiplashed between the two.)

+ Rahm could not understand why Osama bin Laden was still on the loose. Outside the Situation Room, he pulled aside a White House aide charged with reviewing U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: “Why the fuck don’t we have a clue where [bin Laden] is?” The aide responded, “There’s nobody in charge,” as there was too much overlap between intelligence and counterterrorism communities. “There needs to be a sheriff in charge of this posse.” Rahm’s involvement indirectly led Obama to write a memo to Panetta asking for a “detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice [OBL].”

+ Rahm was an enthusiastic, “quasi obess[ive]” supporter of the drone attacks on designated terrorists. According to Klaidman, “[Rahm] understood the political upside to a program that took out high-level terrorists. That’s what the vast majority of Americans wanted.” And so Rahm “kept tabs on the hunt for high-value targets with an avidity that left even some CIA veterans uncomfortable.” He would “repeatedly” call Panetta “…to see if they’d had a successful hit.” 

+ One of big battles between Rahm and Holder was over prisoners held in Guantanamo.  Holder not only wanted to close the prison camp (as did Obama during the campaign and for some time after), but he also wanted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, considered its most notorious prisoner and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, tried in federal court in Manhattan. Rahm opposed both, believing that these stands might make Holder feel good about himself—“Eric’s trying to be a fucking hero at the expense of the president”—but would definitely cost the president a second term. According to Klaidman, “What Emanuel wanted to know now was whether Obama was really going to risk a second term to protect the constitutional rights of a bunch of terrorists held in Guantanamo.”  Rahm told Obama, “If you go ahead with this, you’ll lose…”

+ Rahm found Holder hugely naïve about the impact of his public statements. The chief of staff was furious when Holder said in a speech on race relations that Americans are a “nation of cowards.” Rahm was equally incensed when Holder told reporters that the Obama administration would “push to reinstate the assault weapons ban.” Obama needed pro-gun Democrats to support his domestic agenda. “Holder needs “to shut the fuck up” on guns, was the message Rahm sent. “He had an ‘every day is election day’” mentality, Klaidman writes.

+ Rahm and Holder had once been allies. When Rahm worked in the Clinton White House, he had “tangled endlessly” with then-Attorney General Janet Reno. Her deputy and “Emanuel’s main channel to the White House” was Eric Holder. “[Rahm] had done everything he could to marginalize… Reno, whom he saw as an annoyingly prudish figure whose rigid independence often thwarted the White House’s political goals.” Back then, Holder had shown way too little independence from Bill Clinton in the granting of the Marc Rich pardon. It infuriated Rahm that Holder appeared to be trying to atone for his mistakes back then by now going “on a crusade to assert his own independence.” 

+ A big item in the news at the start of the Obama administration were the problems hobbling Obama’s White House counsel Gregory Craig, who eventually resigned, although Klaidman implies that Emanuel leaked to the Washington Post that Craig was being pushed out. In Klaidman’s telling, Rahm “marginalized” Craig and, from “day one,” limited his access to the president. “Craig’s more liberal policy objectives,” Klaidman writes, “conflicted with [Rahm’s] more centrist political course.”

+ Rahm does not come off as having any particular principles or passions except Obama’s re-election. Klaidman describes Rahm as “like a political commissar in the Soviet Army, warily prowling the government for renegades, ruthlessly enforcing loyalty.” When Holder wanted to explain his KSM decision by going on the network Sunday morning shows, Rahm “nixed it. Holder was told he could give a single television interview to PBS’s Newshour with its measly one million viewers, most of whom were likely already in Holder’s camp.” 

+ Klaidman is not the first to report that Valerie Jarrett and Rahm were locked in their own hellish battle. Jarrett was close to Holder, protected him, and fed him “key bits of intelligence” and descriptions of confidential advice that Emanuel was giving the boss.   According to Klaidman, Rahm worried that Jarrett, among the closest of the Obamas’ personal friends, had the president’s (and Michelle’s) ear and could become a “shadow chief of staff.” It was Rahm who wanted to “nudge” Jarrett out of the White House, and he pushed to the boss the idea of Jarrett taking Obama’s place in the U.S. Senate.

+ Rahm and David Axelrod, Klaidman reports, worked together to keep cabinet secretaries and other officials on “White House-supplied talking points.” The duo also schemed to get a political guy, Chris Sautter, who had run the Washington office of Axelrod’s media consulting firm, on the Justice Department staff in order to keep a leash on Holder. Bristling at the idea of “a minder,” Holder resisted, and the result was the prospect of a fistfight in the White House corridor. According to Klaidman, Axelrod confronted Holder after a cabinet meeting and told the Attorney General that “…it had gotten back to him that Holder and his aides were spreading the world that he was trying to improperly influence the Justice Department…`Don’t ever, ever accuse me of trying to interfere with the operations of the Justice Department,’” Axelrod threatened. “I’m not Karl Rove.” “That’s bullshit,” Holder shot back, as “White House staffers caught in the crossfire averted their eyes,” and Jarrett, “petite and perfectly put together as always,” pushed herself between the men and demanded, “Take it out of the hallway.” [On Monday, the Washington Post reported that “…Holder’s relationship with the White House has improved greatly since the departure of two senior aides”—those would be Rahm and Axelrod. “….he feels he has allies within the White House and not the detractors he had before.”]

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