The case of Elizabeth Warren vs. Mary Jo White exploded on Wall Street and Washington on Tuesday as the liberal Massachusetts senator sent a blistering 13-page letter to the SEC chair essentially calling her a bad regulator and a liar.
Defenders of White, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan with a reputation for extreme toughness, castigated Warren for calling the SEC chair out on exactly what she told senators she would do during her confirmation process: Recuse herself from cases where her private sector law practice or that of her husband would cause a conflict of interest.
They also noted that one of Warren's other complaints—that White lied to her in a private meeting about the timing of a new rule on executive compensation disclosure—was unfair because the SEC is still pushing forward on the timetable White supplied to Warren, no matter what some other agency might say.
"It is rather extraordinary for a U.S. senator to send this kind of letter to one of our more distinguished public servants," Robert Kelner of the law firm Covington & Burling, an expert on political compliance, told me on Tuesday. "The allegation concerning recusal seems to me especially unfair because the Senate was very much on notice that under existing law Mary Jo White would have to recuse herself from a variety of matters."
Kelner added that "the criticism of agency inaction on corporate political disclosure also seems misplaced because corporate political disclosure has utterly nothing to do with the SEC. It's a beef that should be taken up with the Federal Election Commission."
The White House also came to White's defense, though perhaps in not the most robust fashion, which some Warren supporters said suggested the West Wing is not entirely thrilled with the SEC chair's tenure, either.
"The president does continue to believe that she is the right person for the job," press secretary Joshua Earnest said in something short of a full-throated endorsement.
The left mostly rallied around Warren, saying that the SEC under White has been a disappointment on both the rule-writing and enforcement fronts. Some activists told me privately that while they don't endorse all the specific criticisms in Warren's letter, they do agree with the broader critique.