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Test of Privilege: Mary Matilin

January 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the White House view: Mary Matalin is counselor to Vice President Cheney, and an assistant to President Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: On what basis is the executive branch now continuing its refusal to turn over this information?

MARY MATALIN, Counselor to the Vice President: On the same basis that the Congress, including Congressman Waxman, does not have to turn over to anybody private conversations that he has with constituents or, as he likes to say, lobbyists or the special interests that come in to see him. The Congress has specifically exempted itself from giving up the kind of information that they’re demanding of the Vice President. So we want to protect, preserve and extend that principle for the executive branch. Otherwise, future Presidents, this President, will not be able to make sound policy if they’re not permitted to garner unvarnished advice from a wide range of people, as we did in the energy policy, without those people feeling like Senator… Congressman Waxman can turn it into a press release, which in many cases he has done.

RAY SUAREZ: But he and others on his side of the question have repeated the distinction that they’re not asking for the substance of the meetings, who said what, who wanted what, just who was there and what they were discussing.

MARY MATALIN: Well, I’m very sorry to have to say that Congressman Waxman is flat out wrong. He’s sent enough paper to the West Wing to wallpaper the place but he simply has not read the GAO’s demand letter in which they are asking for every conversation, every meeting, who the Vice President met with, what was said there, minutes, notes and all the rest of it. I’m not sure why he keeps alleging that they have… There’s some request that doesn’t exist. They have asked for exactly what I just said, and the principle that we’re trying to defend here and are willing to and had been ready to in August to defend in court is that those conversations do not have to be made public. What was made public and what we fear that the Congressman has issues with and is trying to create a political issue over is the national energy policy, which was published in May, widely distributed, debated for months in the Congress and passed. What happened as a result of deliberations of the energy policy group are all in this plan, 105 recommendations for all the world to see.

RAY SUAREZ: The original letter of demand from the General Accounting Office did ask for everything that you said.

MARY MATALIN: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t that superseded by a letter of Comptroller General says, and has said subsequently on the record, that he doesn’t want all those things, he just wants the topic of the meeting and who attended the meeting?

MARY MATALIN: The letter of August 17 that the comptroller sent to the President and the Congress was merely a statement of our noncompliance with that request to turn over everything. It’s not a new demand. Upon all of the comptroller’s public pronouncements in the press, which we found peculiar– we’re not trying to litigate this in press. We believe that it belongs in the courts. We did contact his office and say, “Are you making a new demand? If so, we want to sit down and talk.” And the upshot of that was that more talking in the press and the filing of the suit. So we have been working with them, trying to work with them all the way through, initiated many conversations — if what they’re saying in the press is true, please come and talk to us; they did not. In addition to that, we have turned over reams and scores of documents relevant to what they’re… We believe their authority does extend to, and it does extend to accounting practices, which we turned over. It does extend to the agencies and the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior, EPA have sent over thousands an of documents to the GAO so we can’t… We’re hard-pressed to believe that this unprecedented suit that they’re bringing and all the previous cases where there have been issues in the GAO – in the executive branch, they were able to figure out a way not to bring it this far. And so… But we are where we are. But have given them reams and reams of documents, so we can only presume that their motivation for pushing ahead with only Democratic support is politically motivated. And indeed, the comptroller does note in his new suit, or pronouncement to sue that the Enron issue, which is trying to be made political by the Democrats, is why he’s suing us now. So that is suspect in and of itself. Our response to Enron is to deal with those business issues that that collapse raised.

RAY SUAREZ: The way I understand the law, a 20-day period was triggered by the GAO’s demand in the late summer. And at that point, the executive branch could have said, “no, we’re not going to give you the information,” given them the information or certified that this meeting was going to stay private because it was necessary to the smooth operation of the business of the executive branch. If that was one of your options, to say, sort of no with an explanation, why didn’t the Bush administration simply take that option?

MARY MATALIN: Well, we did, on August 2, as a matter of fact, the Vice President sent a letter to the House and to the Senate saying stating out the reasons why he was not going to accede to the demands given to us on July 18, which of course was in that 20-day window and obviously a key threshold issue that GAO, the accounting arm of Congress, does not have authority over a constitutional office. It was set up… Or officer. The Vice President is a constitutional, not statutory officer. He is not an agency; he is a man; he is always the Vice President, he’s not the head of a task force. So they don’t have authority over him. We said that on August 2, and we reasserted that all the documents that we had sent and where they think we could go for more documents. But we responded within the 20-day window and they responded and said that was not responsive to their request to get every meeting, every conversation that the Vice President had. There’s where it stopped. The step there was for them to take us to court, where we were ready to go to court then to defend this principle, and we didn’t hear a peep out of them until the Democrats reraised, because of their need to politicize the Enron issue, this suit, which had been dead, according to they’re not taking that next step, in August.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve mentioned politicization a couple of times now. Knowing that that was a possibility, why not just say who was on the task force, say who the President talked to? Why not just give them what they asked for and what Congressman Waxman asked for but not the notes, not the procedural minutes and…

MARY MATALIN: Because we did give them that Ray. It’s right here. It’s published in the front of the Energy Book. That is everybody who was on the task force. That’s not what they’re asking for. The Congressman continues to misstate what’s being asked of us. They do want these private conversations with the Vice President. We have given them who was on the task force, who is on the staff. We’ve given them the numbers, and the kinds of meetings that we’ve had. But the key… This is the document that they’re objecting to. They don’t like the energy policy, which we need now more than ever. So he continues to misstate. But we have given them all that information. What we’re not going to give them, these private conversations, are the same thing that they would not want to give up, which Congressman Waxman and his colleagues do not have to give up.

RAY SUAREZ: Mary Matalin, thank you for coming by.

MARY MATALIN: Thank you, Ray.