TOKYO | President Obama’s choice to unravel the tangle of legal questions on closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison announced his resignation Friday, ending speculation about the fate of White House Counsel Greg Craig that began as the president’s goal to close the prison by January began to falter.
Mr. Craig, whose resignation became public as the president landed in Tokyo for a week-long tour of East Asia, is the highest-ranking departure so far in Mr. Obama’s 10-month presidency.
He will be replaced by Bob Bauer - a veteran Washington lawyer and Obama adviser whose wife, Anita Dunn, is leaving her post as White House communications director at the end of the month. The Republican National Committee called Mr. Bauer “hyper-partisan” and said he is the “Democrat Party’s lawyer of choice.”
The president had only praise for Mr. Craig on Friday, calling him a “huge asset” as well as a “close friend and trusted adviser who tackled many tough challenges as White House counsel.” Mr. Craig said he plans to leave officially on Jan. 3.
The president then lauded Mr. Bauer as “a trusted counselor for many years to many elected officials.”
Mr. Bauer has a long track record of providing legal counsel to Democratic politicians and organizations. He has been Mr. Obama’s personal attorney since 2005 and represents the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, the group that grew out of the Obama campaign and has since been brought under the DNC.
But Mr. Craig is perhaps best known for his work in a previous White House, as former President Bill Clinton’s chief defender during his 1998 impeachment trial. He later became one of the earliest Clinton allies to join Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, during the Democratic primaries against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Craig has taken the blame for the White House’s failure to predict and effectively manage the political dimension of closing Guantanamo, especially the extremely charged question of where to move the detainees now held in the Cuba-based prison.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who said news of Mr. Craig’s resignation was “a surprise,” said some have “tried to place on him, I think, an unfair proportion of the blame as to why things have not proceeded perhaps as we have wanted with regard to Guantanamo.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers balked at the idea of transferring detainees into U.S. prisons. And under Republican pressure, Congress has banned the release of detainees into the U.S.
However, Democrats have turned back Republican efforts to bar the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the country to face trial.
The process of persuading other nations to take some Guantanamo detainees also has been painstakingly slow. The Obama administration was taken aback at the amount of work required to put together formerly nonexistent evidence and intelligence files on each Guantanamo detainee.
As a result, the administration admitted some time ago that it most likely would not meet Mr. Obama’s January deadline for closing the prison.
In recent weeks, the prison-closing process has begun to pick up steam.
The Justice Department announced Friday that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be sent to New York to face trial in a civilian federal court, and five other suspects will be sent to military commissions.
Last month, Mr. Obama signed a defense policy bill that brought back but revamped Bush-era military trials for terror suspects. The revised military commissions give new legal rights to accused terrorists.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was emphatic that Mr. Craig was not leaving because the president was dissatisfied with his work. He spoke almost wistfully about the departure, saying Mr. Craig was “in some ways a reluctant acceptor of the counsel’s position.”
He credited Mr. Craig with setting up the process that will end in the closure of the Guantanamo Bay site and confirmed that he played a key role in selecting and shepherding Justice Sonia Sotomayor to her seat on the Supreme Court.
The Associated Press contributed to this article. Jon Ward contributed reporting from Washington.