Wednesday morning’s hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee with Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper was contentious. The focus was on the administration’s emergency declaration allowing the White House to bypass Congress in authorizing arms sales to the Gulf. In one particular exchange, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Ca.) pressed Cooper on the potential involvement of then-Deputy Assistant Secretary Marik String in drafting the justification memo for the emergency declaration.
Cooper hedged, and Bera pounced. The congressman raised his concern that String had been appointed Acting Legal Adviser to the State Department on May 24, “the very day that this emergency declaration was sent to the Hill, according to public records, this is when he got the promotion to be the top lawyer.” String worked for Cooper until May 23.
String was first admitted to the bar only in 2013, as Bera highlighted, and he practiced law for only a few years as an associate at WilmerHale before joining the State Department in 2017 in a non-legal capacity. With four years of experience practicing law, String appears to be the least seasoned lawyer ever to lead the State Department’s Legal Office. That said, there is no indication yet whether the White House is planning to nominate String for Senate confirmation or to rely upon an acting official for the foreseeable future. The administration would face potential legal hurdles to nominating String due to a federal statute that prohibits US officials from serving in both an acting capacity and as a nominee for the same position. That is not a guarantee, however, that President Trump will move swiftly to nominate a permanent replacement, as he has relied upon acting officials answerable to him alone at numerous junctures throughout his presidency.
A former senior State Department official told Just Security,
The best thing would of course be to have a confirmed Legal Adviser in place, but this will hardly be the first time that there is a gap. It seems to me there are cons to moving someone in as Acting from outside the career ranks, but there are also some distinct pros—including that it is good for the Legal Adviser’s Office to have a politically-responsible person at the helm. Ultimately whether this is a good move depends mostly on the person—including his talents, judgment, ability to draw on the depth of knowledge and experience that resides in L—and I just don’t know him.
String graduated with a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in 2003. According to his bio (see also here, here, and here), “from 2006 to 2013, he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee professional staff of Chairman/Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-IN), where he held responsibilities as Deputy Chief Counsel and Senior Professional Staff Member for European and Eurasian Affairs.” However, String was on the masthead of the student-edited law journal at Georgetown as of August 2012.
As of May 24, String heads the Office of Legal Adviser and is now the voice of international law for the United States. The Legal Adviser is also responsible for conducting all of the functions of a General Counsel’s office (including managing about two dozen sub-offices) for one of the largest federal departments, with operations and employees across the globe.
“The obvious question is whether someone of his experience has the stature to manage the world’s most high-powered international law firm and the backbone to give fearless and independent legal advice to our current President, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State,” another former senior State Department official told Just Security.
Or, as another former senior State Department official put it, “The idea that someone so few years out of law school, and not even practicing law for all that time, is in the office occupied by people like Abe Chayes—it’s absurd on its face. The only reason you’d do it is to undermine the institution.”
A fourth former senior State Department official told Just Security:
The State Department’s Legal Adviser is expected to have legal knowledge and expertise on the entire range of international law issues, from the laws of armed conflict to private international law to human rights to international environmental law. Seeing prior Legal Advisers in action–regardless of which party appointed the Secretary of State–was like watching an international law encyclopedia come to life. It’s hard to imagine someone so inexperienced filling these shoes.
Bera pressed Cooper on whether String’s possible involvement in the arms deal played any role in his promotion.
“Was Mr. String promoted to this position because of his work on the Gulf arm sales,” Bera asked.
Mr. Cooper replied, “No.”
“Did his promotion have any connection to work on these Gulf arm sales?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Cooper answered. “I would say his promotion to that position was based on his merit, his performance, and his ability to do the job.”
“Who would know the justification of that promotion?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
Watch this space.