GOP lawyer caught in crossfire on Kavanaugh, Russia probe
WASHINGTON (AP) — Bill Burck is a Republican insider being pushed into the limelight by two of the biggest political dramas in Washington: the Russia investigation of Robert Mueller and the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.
He’s a lawyer for current and former Trump White House officials who have been touched by the Russia probe. As George W. Bush’s longtime public records lawyer, he’s in charge of culling documents for the Senate from Kavanaugh’s White House years. He’s also Kavanaugh’s friend and former deputy at the Bush White House.
That makes Burck, 47, “triply-conflicted,” say some Democrats, They have denounced the lawyer’s role in the unusual and potentially precedent-setting arrangement to expedite the gathering of Kavanaugh’s government records before Senate confirmation hearings that start Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters that Republicans are “cherry-picking” what Kavanaugh records are available. He called it “a disservice to the American people.”
Burck’s friends and allies see in the Yale-educated lawyer a straight-shooting, skilled professional who cares less about partisan battles than providing the best legal representation possible. For several years in a row a legal publication named him a “White Collar MVP.”
Burck scoffs at critics who see partisan politics at play in his client roster. He says his work for Bush reviewing Kavanaugh’s records has little to do with representing Donald Trump-world clients in Mueller’s investigation.
“I think partisanship may be getting in the way of rational thought,” Burck told The Associated Press.
The weeks ahead are not the type of public spotlight Burck necessarily seeks. While he gravitates to high-profile cases, Burck appears to prefer a behind-the-scenes role as the lawyer people call when they are in a tough spot.
Those who know the New England native from his days as a clerk to retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recall a bright but laid-back colleague.
“He’s a pretty rare combination of book smarts and good people skills and good judgment,” said attorney Jim Bennett, who was a fellow Kennedy clerk in the late 1990s and has remained friends with Burck. “People gravitate to him as a lawyer because he inspires confidence.”
The son of a corporate lawyer, Burck showed ambition, working as a federal prosecutor in New York and at the Bush White House as Kavanaugh’s deputy staff secretary. His private practice caseload has come to read like a legal-thriller index.
Burck was lead counsel to FIFA in the international football association bribery scandal and for insurance giant AIG over claims it misled the federal government during the 2008 finance crisis. He was counsel to the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity in its challenge to a California campaign finance law that required nonprofit groups to disclose their membership. That fight played out while Kamala Harris, now a senator, was the state’s attorney general.
These days Burck represents White House counsel Don McGahn, former White House adviser Steve Bannon and former chief of staff Reince Priebus in the Mueller probe.
McGahn, who has been shepherding Kavanaugh’s nomination through the Senate, has become an important witness in Mueller’s investigation. Not long after the extent of McGahn’s meetings with investigators were disclosed in news reports, Trump tweeted that McGahn would be leaving the White House after Kavanaugh was confirmed. Senate votes are expected at the end of September, in time for the start of the new Supreme Court session Oct. 1.
Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law school professor who played basketball and shared happy hour beers with Burck when they were both clerks, doesn’t consider Burck to be an “extreme conservative.” Roosevelt expects the role Burck is playing now representing the Trump officials is “a little ideologically to the right of where I’d expect him to be.”
Burck in some ways may be more of a White House outsider than ally because all three of his Trump-related clients were essentially fired by the president.
But that doesn’t satisfy Democrats who see in Burck a too-intricate circle of connections. They’re particularly upset that Senate Republicans only requested Kavanaugh’s documents from his work in the White House counsel’s office, rather than his three years as Bush’s staff secretary. They say the decision has hidden from view potentially millions of pages that could shed light on Kavanaugh’s thoughts on Bush-era policies, including the use of harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
“The process reeks,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Fallon, now executive director of Demand Justice, a group that opposes Kavanaugh’s confirmation, added: “Burck has his thumb in every pie.”
Before the Senate hearing Tuesday, Burck’s team announced it had largely concluded its document production, with more than 267,000 pages from Kavanaugh cleared for public release. That’s more than any other court nominees, Republicans say, but far fewer than the 900,000 that National Archives initially estimated for the job.
In a letter to GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Burck’s team said that duplicate documents cut that number to some 600,000. An additional 174,000 pages were made available to the committee on a confidential basis and about 100,000 were personal.
While the letter says Bush sought to err on the side of openness and transparency, the Trump White House — separate from Bush — is withholding 100,000 pages on the basis of presidential privilege. Schumer called the White House’s move “a Friday night document massacre.”
Even before Trump chose a replacement for Kennedy this summer, Republicans knew they had a paper trail problem if Kavanaugh became the nominee. He would be the first public-sector pick from the email age with an unprecedented amount of public documents. Republicans are eager to confirm the new justice before the November election, when their slim majority is being challenged. They began crafting a workaround.
Aides to Grassley were on a conference call the day after the nomination was announced and looking for a solution. What could be called the “Burck process” would become a potentially precedent-setting approach. The National Archives said in a statement later that it’s “something that has never happened before.”
Republican advocates say the new system pushed the Senate more fully into the digital age, with computer software to more quickly search and sort hundreds and thousands of pages, much the way it is done at big law firms. They say the National Archives still has final review over the production, but the private lawyers — Burck hired a team of about 50 — can do the job much faster.
Grassley has welcomed the expedited review and criticized the Democratic push for additional documents as a costly paper chase.
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