‘Number one about Cheryl Mills, she is one of the smartest people with the highest standards of integrity that I met at the White House,” says Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to President Clinton, “which is a statement, because there were a lot of smart and a lot of honest people there.”
Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the Benghazi attack and its aftermath centered unexpectedly on Mills, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s counselor and chief of staff. She is also one of the longest serving, most trusted, and most unflinching members of the former first couple’s inner circle.
If the GOP congressmen and whistleblowers who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing are correct, Mills stands at the center of the Obama administration’s attempt to put the lid on the Benghazi scandal. Ohio congressman Jim Jordan described Mills as “the person next to Secretary Clinton,” tracing the growing scandal to the highest echelons of the State Department.
“She is the fixer for the secretary of state, she is as close as you can get to Hillary Clinton, is that accurate?” he prodded. “Yes, sir,” responded Foreign Service officer Gregory Hicks. He went on to describe a phone call he received from Mills as the investigation into the attack unfolded. “I was instructed not to allow the RSO [regional security officer], the acting deputy chief of mission, and myself to be interviewed by Congressman Chaffetz,” he said, adding that he received a follow-up call from an irate Mills, who demanded details of his meeting with the congressman.
“I have no doubt that she had the right motives in wanting a State Department lawyer to be in the room,” Davis tells me. “She has very high standards of integrity, and she gets angry when they’re not complied with.”
Mills is, by all accounts, a formidable opponent. She played a central role in the scandals that marked President Clinton’s two terms in the White House, and she emerged unfazed and unscathed. She has been here before, and she is no doubt prepared for the showdown that the current political storm may bring.
Mills is perhaps best known for her unwavering defense of the former president during his impeachment trial. As a 33-year-old deputy White House counsel, she offered stirring arguments on the president’s behalf. Grainy C-SPAN footage shows her clad in a gray suit and pearls that provided a stark contrast to her baby face as, for over an hour, she defended the president against charges of obstruction of justice.
Addressing Republicans’ repeated appeals to the primacy of the rule of law, she told the Senate, “As a lawyer, as an American, and as an African American, it is a principle in which I believe to the very core of my being.” She continued, in soothing tones, “We cannot uphold the rule of law only when it is consistent with our beliefs, we must uphold it even when it protects behavior that we don’t like, or that is unattractive, or that is not admirable, or that might even be hurtful.”
The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, who calls Mills Hillary Clinton’s “guardian angel,” has drawn attention to the praise her defense garnered from the media. The BBC labeled her “the shining star of the defense team” the following day, adding that she “slapped down” the obstruction-of-justice charge levied against the president. The Washington Post was similarly effusive, praising her, at turns, as “remarkable,” and “a legal star on the rise.”
Mills, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was raised in Germany, Belgium, and the United States. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia and a member of the law review at Stanford Law School, she has been connected to the Clintons since 1992, when she moved to Little Rock, Ark., to join the newly elected president’s transition team.