Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images
The White House lawyer who reportedly advised President Trump that he had limited authority to fire former FBI director James Comey has an unexpected background: He once worked for Comey.
Uttam Dhillon, who the New York Times on Thursday night reported had taken “the extraordinary step” in early 2017 “of misleading” President Trump about the circumstances under which he could fire Comey, has served in several Republican-led offices.
Prior to joining the White House, he worked for Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling. More than a decade earlier, he had worked for then-Rep. Chris Cox. And, notably, in between those jobs, he served in the George W. Bush-era Justice Department, working for Comey, who was then deputy attorney general.
At the start of the Trump administration, however, Dhillon joined the White House Counsel’s Office, led by White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
In that role, Dhillon, the New York Times reported, had a junior lawyer examine what grounds Trump would need to fire Comey. The lawyer, per the Times, concluded that — like any executive branch employee — Trump could fire Comey at will.
“Mr. Dhillon, who had earlier told Mr. Trump that he needed cause to fire Mr. Comey, never corrected the record, withholding the conclusions of his research,” the Times reports.
The story asserts that Dhillon did so because he “was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be imperiled” — because it could lead to the sort of investigation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now overseeing.
White House spokespeople did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday about Dhillon’s role in the White House Counsel’s Office.
Before joining the White House in early 2017, Dhillon was chief counsel for oversight for the House Financial Services Committee under Hensarling, the committee’s chair. Before that, he had worked for a law firm doing securities litigation in Dallas. Before that, he had been in DC, a part of the Bush administration.
In his time at the Justice Department, Dhillon, per his LinkedIn bio, was “®esponsible for advising and assisting the Deputy Attorney General in formulating and implementing Department of Justice policies and programs relating to explosives, firearms, capital punishment, violent crime, gangs, and civil liberties.”
The deputy attorney general for almost all of Dhillon’s time in that role was Comey.
Dhillon was one of a handful of associate deputy attorneys general who worked under Comey, according to a 2005 directory published by the Government Printing Office. While at the Justice Department, Dhillon worked on law enforcement and related matters.
Among the others in the office at the time were Chuck Rosenberg, who was Comey’s chief of staff when he was deputy attorney general but was the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration until his resignation in September 2017 — reportedly because of concerns about Trump’s respect for the rule of law — and Jim Rybicki, who later was Comey’s chief of staff when he was the FBI director.
The time period was a notable one for the Bush-era Justice Department: It was in March 2004 when Comey — later described in great detail before a Senate committee — rushed to the hospital, where then-attorney general John Ashcroft had been admitted for nearly a week, in an attempt to stop the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and chief of staff, Andrew Card, from attempting to, as Comey testified, “ask him [Ashcroft] to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that.” Comey was the acting attorney general due to Ashcroft’s hospitalization and had refused to reauthorize the domestic surveillance program in place at the time, but he was concerned that the White House was going to attempt to circumvent him by going directly to Ashcroft — which they did, but without success.
In November 2005, a few months after Comey left his role as deputy attorney general, President Bush nominated Dhillon to be the first head of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, where he served after Senate confirmation.