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After Rob Porter Resigns, Former WH Secretary Lisa Brown Discusses Position's Importance


White House staff secretary is one of the most important jobs that most Americans haven't heard of. People who have held the role have gone on to federal judgeships, even a Supreme Court nomination. Lisa Brown was President Obama's first White House staff secretary, and she's now general counsel of Georgetown University. Welcome.

LISA BROWN: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe this role?

BROWN: So I think of the role having two components to it. One of which is traffic cop...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BROWN: ...And the other of which is honest broker. And let me explain that a little bit.


BROWN: All the paper that goes to the president goes through the staff secretary's office. So some of what you're doing is literally just organizing it. There's a tremendous volume of paper, and you're organizing it in a way that the president can get through very, very efficiently. Part of what you're sending the president is decision memos. And when you do that, you want to make sure that a memo reflects the diversity of views of the president's advisers so that the president is not just getting one potentially biased view on a particular issue. So I think it's a very sensitive position because you really do see everything. And you want somebody who you know is completely trustworthy and honorable in that kind of a role.

SHAPIRO: So even though paper flow might sound like a very dry term, it sounds like the staff secretary can really shape what the president sees and hears on a daily basis.

BROWN: That's right. And when the office is working well, you are working very closely with the chief of staff because part of the way the president makes decisions is through meetings, and then the other part is through paper.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about working closely with the chief of staff, do you mean, like, you would have a daily meeting every morning, or once an hour you would check in with each other? What are we talking about here?

BROWN: So I think that piece probably varies administration to administration and, honestly, chief of staff to chief of staff. What I did anyway was I would go to the chief of staff when there was a particular issue or something that I wanted to make sure that he was aware was about to be sent to the president. Or was the issue ready for the president? Did he want to have more senior staff discussions before it went?

SHAPIRO: I'm imagining a chart of the White House where certain people know certain things and certain groups are working on certain projects - seems like every one of those things has a line going to the staff secretary. This is a node where all information passes.

BROWN: Yes. It's interesting. One thing I realized when I was in the job is that you were in fact one of the few offices that sees across the White House. So you really have a sense of what is going on in all the different offices in a way that - you know, the head of the Council on Environmental Quality doesn't necessarily know exactly what's going on in the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council.

SHAPIRO: It's been widely reported that in part because of the FBI investigation of these spousal abuse accusations, Rob Porter did not have a permanent security clearance. How difficult would that make the White House staff secretary's job not having that kind of clearance?

BROWN: I have asked myself this question in different forms in the last 24 hours because I don't know how you really do the job effectively without a security clearance. It's 20 - maybe 20 percent of the paper that went through my office was classified. Some of it - you know, there are different levels of classification, but I had the highest security clearance.

SHAPIRO: And that would be pretty typical for someone in your job.

BROWN: Yes, I would assume so. Now, I should say the way that the office ran when I was there was very similar to the way it had run in previous both Republican and Democratic administrations, which meant that the classified material was feeding in through the staff secretary's office and then up to the president. I suppose it could be organized differently now, but that was - a big, big percentage of the paper that went to the president was classified. So I don't know how he could do his job without a security clearance.

SHAPIRO: I think many people hearing this story had strong reactions to the accusations of spousal abuse. Setting that aside, how did you react to hearing that the White House staff secretary was the person at the center of this story?

BROWN: It's usually (laughter) a completely behind-the-scenes job. It's sort of the ultimate insider role because you are not supposed to have your own policy agenda in that job other than having policy be made effectively and thoughtfully. And so you're never the person who's going to be interviewed by the press on a particular issue. So it's highly unusual to see the staff secretary suddenly front and center.

SHAPIRO: Lisa Brown, thanks so much for talking with us.

BROWN: Sure, my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: She was President Obama's first White House staff secretary and is now general counsel at Georgetown.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FINE FRENZY SONG, "ELECTRIC TWIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.