As counsel to the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Molly Claflin, JD ’08, conducted a transcribed interview of a Russian- American lobbyist and suspected Russian counterintelligence agent whom the New York Times called a “master of the dark arts.” She also second-chaired the transcribed interview of Donald Trump Jr.
He was a winker.
“Anytime he said something he thought was clever, he would wink,” Claflin says. “I don’t think he fully appreciated the gravity of the situation we were in, sitting in the basement of the Capitol Building, dealing with what could be potential treason charges.”
Claflin, on the other hand, seeks out such gravity. In her three years working with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she also worked on investigations into former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email practices and the potential obstruction of justice by former President Trump. In her current job as chief counsel for investigations to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Claflin is examining the country’s response to a pandemic that has so far killed 800,000 Americans.
“The work I’m doing now is the most impactful,” she says. “Our goal is to see what went wrong and how we make it better.”
Alex Aronson, JD ’12, chief counsel to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, worked with Claflin on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Molly approaches her oversight work with incredible rigor and tenacity,” he says. “What I’ve always appreciated about her as a colleague is her enthusiasm, her good humor, and her positivity. That’s so critical when you’re in the trenches of these big, political fights.”
Claflin grew up outside Ashland, Oregon, attending a rural high school where a history teacher assigned her independent study projects, including a dive so deep into Watergate that when the subject eventually came up on the syllabus, Claflin taught the class.
What interested her most, she says, was “impact and intrigue.”
“I was really into political intrigue and the policy impact of it,” she says. “I knew I wanted to do something impactful, but I didn’t know exactly what that would be.”
Claflin studied political science at the University of Southern California before enrolling at Stanford Law School, where two of her most influential classes were Lawyering for Social Change with Diane T. Chin, associate dean for public service and public interest law, and a voting rights course with Professor Pamela S. Karlan (currently the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice). Both emphasized the context in which the law operates.
“Legal classes are taught in this vacuum: Apply the law to the facts,” Claflin says. “But that’s not how it works at all. Where is public opinion? What is the media doing? There is this huge ecosystem of things happening, and learning that was so, so, so valuable to me.”
Chin says Claflin was a “joyful, optimistic, and upbeat” student.
“She already had a deep understanding about systems, structures, and power,” Chin says. “We had a lot of conversations about law and politics, and within those conversations was a focus on how she could have the most positive impact on our democracy and upholding democratic values.”
On campus, Claflin also founded Law Students for Obama.
“As a law student, you’re so consumed by your schoolwork and school-related activities that the fact that she was able to carve out the time to do something like that is really impressive,” says Neesa Sethi, JD ’08, a friend and a former attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
“For the last year and a half, we’ve had a laboratory of social policies we never would have been bold enough to try. What worked? What didn’t? That impacts future policies.”
—Molly Claflin, JD ’08
After graduating in 2008, Claflin had an offer from the Obama for America campaign but wasn’t sure whether to take it. The country was at the start of the Great Recession; legal jobs were hard to find, and Claflin hadn’t even taken the bar exam yet. Then-dean Larry Kramer encouraged her.
“Joining the campaign was the scariest thing I ever did—it was a one-way ticket,” she says. “Dean Kramer was so supportive.”
Kramer says he never doubted Claflin’s prospects, adding that she stood out on a campus full of standouts.
“She was super engaged but really nice at the same time,” he says. “A lot of people who are really passionate about what they’re doing can be fierce with an edge. She managed to be fierce without that edge.”
From 2010 to 2015, Claflin worked at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in the firm’s D.C. office. After leaving the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018, she took a job as chief oversight counsel at American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog organization. When the chief counsel for investigations role at the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis became available in early 2021, she jumped at the chance, calling it a “dream role.”
Claflin manages a team of lawyers exploring the economic impact of pandemic-related policies—including the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal eviction moratorium, enhanced Child Tax Credit, and stimulus payments—that have represented a massive expansion of the safety net in the United States.
“For the last year and a half, we’ve had a laboratory of social policies we never would have been bold enough to try,” she says. “What worked? What didn’t? That impacts future policies.”
Claflin calls the Hill “a bare-knuckled boxing match” but says, “I wouldn’t trade my career for anything. If I look back at 15-year-old me reading about the Watergate tapes, this is exactly what I wanted to do.” SL
Rebecca Beyer is a former staff writer and editor for the Daily Journal.