Ed Siskel moved from Chicago to Washington last weekend to begin his new role as White House counsel. He had one entire day — last Monday — to settle into his office, in a coveted corner on the second floor of the West Wing.
By Mr. Siskel’s second day on the job, Speaker Kevin McCarthy had unilaterally opened an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, plunging Mr. Biden into one of the more dramatic situations a president — and the person holding the job of counsel to the president — can face.
In a statement, Mr. Biden praised Mr. Siskel as a seasoned lawyer who could “hit the ground running as a key leader on my team” to advise on everything from policy litigation to judicial nominations. Still, it was an unusually busy week — and one focused squarely on impeachment — even by Washington’s frenetic standards.
A veteran of the Obama White House, where he countered Republican efforts in the Benghazi and Solyndra investigations, Mr. Siskel, 51, will help steer Mr. Biden through a political maelstrom as an ultraconservative bloc of Republicans pushes for impeachment.
The White House, which has slowly been building out a defensive apparatus for over a year, has dismissed the effort as little more than a bad-faith political stunt. Republicans have uncovered no evidence that connects Mr. Biden to the sort of financial wrongdoing or corruption they say he and his family have committed.
But Republicans are promising to dig through the family’s finances and correspondence. And the decisions that Mr. Biden makes — based on the input of Mr. Siskel, his team of lawyers and his personal lawyer — will have consequences not just for the presidency but also for Mr. Biden’s 2024 campaign.
A nephew of the film critic Gene Siskel, Mr. Siskel grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. (Among his teachers was former President Barack Obama, who taught constitutional law.) Later, Mr. Siskel clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens.
He also worked for Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago. There, he handled the high-profile fraud and obstruction-of-justice case of the Canadian-born newspaper baron Conrad Black, who was convicted of fraud in 2007.
“He’s got great judgment,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in an interview. “He has integrity. But I think he also has the background and experience where he’s been through the drill of making sure people stay on the right side of the line between politics and policy.”
Mr. Fitzgerald said Mr. Siskel was “relatively soft-spoken” and a gifted writer, skills that he expected would serve him well when responding to requests from Republicans.
Several of Mr. Siskel’s allies said he had a seasoned understanding of where established legal precedents are with congressional investigations targeting the White House — a signal, they said, that Republicans may have to clear a high bar to review any of the information they may ultimately decide to seek from the president.
Mr. Siskel is no stranger to partisan fights, but he is also known for leveling with his clients, people close to him say. He most recently worked as a chief legal officer for Grosvenor Holdings, a Chicago-based investment firm. At the White House, he will lead a crew of over 40 lawyers who most recently served under Stuart Delery, who announced last month that he was leaving the post.
Mr. Siskel, who did not respond to a request for comment, was a White House lawyer focused on congressional oversight issues during the Obama administration. He earned a reputation as a crisis manager when he helped lead the administration’s effort to counter Republican investigations into the Benghazi terrorist attack, a lengthy case that uncovered no new evidence against its main target, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Siskel was deputy White House counsel when he left for private practice at the law firm WilmerHale. Later, he was recruited to work for Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor of Chicago. Under Mr. Emanuel, Mr. Siskel served as corporation counsel, overseeing dozens of lawyers and fighting legal claims against the city. Mr. Emanuel praised Mr. Siskel as having a sharp understanding of the politics surrounding legal decisions.
“A lot of lawyers are great lawyers with zero peripheral vision into public opinion,” Mr. Emanuel, now the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in an interview. Mr. Siskel, he said, “has a keen legal mind, seasoned, with a political appreciation. And that’s a rarity.”
Mr. Emanuel, the White House chief of staff under Mr. Obama, added, “If you’re a mayor or chief of staff in the White House, that is really appreciated.”
Jamie S. Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and hired Mr. Siskel at WilmerHale, said Mr. Siskel had “good ballast” — necessary for operating in a highly charged environment.
“You can’t get in the water and flap around,” she said.
“I think he’s going to be very staunch in protecting the president and the White House in a calm and polite way,” Ms. Gorelick said, “but he will not be pushed around.”