CHICAGO – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has engaged three prominent lawyers to help President-elect Barack Obama vet her candidacy for secretary of state even as some insiders criticized the pick and advisers to the former first lady said she was weighing whether to take the job if Obama offered it.
Attorneys Cheryl Mills, David Kendall and Robert Barnett are working with the Obama transition team to review information about the Clintons' background and finances, including Bill Clinton's post-presidential business deals and relationships with foreign governments. All three represented the Clintons on legal matters in the White House, including President Clinton's dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment in 1998.
Officials knowledgeable about the vetting said it has gone smoothly and that both Clintons were cooperating fully.
Bill Clinton already has appeared to take an important step toward smoothing his wife's path to the job.
Democrats familiar with the negotiations said the former president has suggested he would step away from day-to-day responsibility for his charitable foundation while his wife served and would alert the State Department to his speaking schedule and any new sources of income.
A top aide involved in the vetting said there was nothing obvious in the former president's dealings that would torpedo his wife's prospects for the job. The aide was not authorized to discuss the matter, and would speak only on background.
The aide pointed out that former President George H.W. Bush has given paid speeches and participated in international business ventures since his son, George W. Bush, has been president without stirring public complaints about a conflict of interest.
But another Democrat who advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign warned that Bill Clinton's business arrangements were more complicated than many people realized. During the campaign, few of her senior strategists knew anything about the former president's business deals and whether they would hold up under scrutiny if she won the nomination, this person said. The adviser spoke on background, not authorized to speak publicly for Hillary Clinton's political operation.
It was unclear whether Bill Clinton has agreed to submit financial information to the transition team that has not been made public through Hillary Clinton's Senate disclosure requirements or during her campaign, when the couple released several years of joint tax returns.
For example, still unknown are the names of donors to Bill Clinton's foundation and presidential library or what he earns as a partner with Yucaipa Global Opportunities Fund, a private investment venture run by billionaire Ron Burkle, a close friend.
During his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama pressed the former president to name the donors to his library. Bill Clinton refused, saying many had given money on the condition that their names not be revealed. He promised to make the donors' names public going forward if his wife won the Democratic nomination.
The former president has engaged in other deals that could complicate his wife's work with foreign governments as secretary of state. Records show he raised money for his foundation from the Saudi royal family, Kuwait, Brunei and the Embassy of Qatar, and from a Chinese Internet company seeking information on Tibetan human rights activists.
While many people familiar with the New York senator's thinking say she is inclined to take the secretary of state's job if it is offered, others say she is also considering the consequences of leaving the Senate, where she had hoped to take a leading role on health care reform and other issues.
"Would she be willing to give up her independent stature in the U.S. Senate, Robert F. Kennedy's seat, to be in the Cabinet? It will be a considerable decision for her," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton adviser not involved in the vetting. "It's a completely different life than you lead in the Senate, where you are your own spokesperson, your own advocate. When you join the Cabinet of the president of the United States, that is no longer the case."
Clinton declined to discuss any part of the selection process Tuesday. "I've said everything I have to say on Friday," she said.
At the State Department, the prospect of Clinton as secretary is creating some anxiety among career foreign service officers worried that she would install her own loyalists and exclude them from policy making. Some at the State Department see her as a foreign policy lightweight, although there is grudging acknowledgment of her star power.
Others closer to the Obama camp have criticized Clinton's credentials for the job.
Greg Craig, a law school classmate of both Clintons who led President Clinton's defense team during his impeachment, wrote a blistering memo during the primary campaign attacking Hillary Clinton's claim to have brokered foreign policy deals during her husband's presidency.
"There is no reason to believe ... that she was a key player in foreign policy at any time during the Clinton administration," Craig, an early Obama supporter likely to be White House counsel, wrote in March.
"She did not sit in on National Security Council meetings. She did not have a security clearance. She did not attend meetings in the Situation Room," Craig added. "She did not manage any part of the national security bureaucracy, nor did she have her own national security staff. She did not do any heavy lifting with foreign governments, whether they were friendly or not."