‘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.
She ascended the ranks quickly at the White House and gained a reputation for fierce loyalty, a tenacious work ethic, and guarding information closely. “When I was at the White House, the debates that always occurred were, ‘How much do we volunteer, how much do we hold back?’ Well, I’m always pushing lawyers to be more forthcoming with the media,” Davis recounts.
Davis, who attended Yale Law School with Hillary Clinton, says that Mills was a key contributor to those discussions about when to push out available information, and when to delay issuing statements until more was known. “That’s an argument I’ve had a million times with Cheryl,” he recalls. “If you don’t meet Cheryl Mills’s standard of excellence, she will let you know without any hesitancy, and not always delicately.”
After leaving the Clinton White House, and before returning to the Clintons’ orbit in 2007 to serve as general counsel on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Mills had stints in programming at Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Media and served as a senior vice president at New York University.
Her move to the Clinton campaign, though, and then to the State Department, suggests Mills’s natural habitat is in the ring of Clinton protectors. And they, it seems, feel the same way. The Clintons “like her in the foxhole with them,” the Washington Post has noted. “If something’s on the other side of a brick wall and the Clintons need it, she’ll find a way to get to it: over, around or through.”
To understand Mills and her abiding loyalty, Davis points to his own experience. “She is loyal to the Clintons for the same reason I am loyal to the Clintons,” he says, “because we go back many, many years. She is a loyal friend, but that leads to an innuendo that is unfair and false — that her integrity is compromised.”
The accusations leveled at Wednesday’s hearing belie that characterization. If they are borne out, even such glowing testimonials as Davis’s may not be enough to help Mills — or, more important, her boss.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.