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Exit Interview: Janet Reno

January 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our summing-up conversations with departing members of the Clinton Cabinet. Tonight, Janet Reno. She’s the longest-serving U.S. Attorney General in the 20th century. A former Miami prosecutor, her eight-year tenure– high profile and often stormy– includes a decline in national crime rates; the government’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas; the conviction of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing; the custody struggle for Elian Gonzalez; and the independent prosecutor’s investigation of President Clinton. I talked with her this afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: Attorney General, welcome.

JANET RENO: Thank you, Jim; I’m glad to be here.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the job you did as Attorney General of the United States?

JANET RENO: I’ll let other people assess it; I just try to do my best and to make the best judgments I can.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that you did your best? Do you leave here —

JANET RENO: There are days where I thought if I could have just spent a little bit more time on a certain issue I might have handled it differently, but I think I worked with some wonderful people, tried my best and I feel comfortable.

JIM LEHRER: Do you leave here with your head high?

JANET RENO: Yes, sir.

JIM LEHRER: What do you feel the best about?

JANET RENO: That I encouraged the people in the Department of Justice, who are wonderful lawyers, wonderful agents, and wonderful support staff, to be their best and they are really wonderfully dedicated public servants. They care. They want to make a difference, and they have made a difference.

JIM LEHRER: Did you expect the professional staff to be as good as they turned out to be?

JANET RENO: No, I didn’t.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think it would be like?

JANET RENO: I wasn’t sure, but I have been surrounded by some of the smartest, brightest, most caring lawyers, by agents who are willing to risk their lives for others, by support staff that are just willing to work as hard as they can. And one of my missions, both in these two days and for the rest of my life, is to let the American people know how many dedicated men and women work with them and for them in the Department of Justice.

JIM LEHRER: What was your darkest day or what was your darkest time during these eight years?

JANET RENO: Well, you were there. I was… It was Waco.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. What went wrong?

JANET RENO: One… It’s obvious what went wrong, but one will never know what the right answer was, because one doesn’t know what Koresh would have done two weeks later without any provocation, so we just have to learn. And one of the things that I think it’s important to do is to make sure that the FBI, when it… rather than inheriting situations, designs the initiative from the beginning.

JIM LEHRER: You kind of burst out on the public scene as a result of Waco, as a result of your saying, “I was responsible. I made the decision, and I will live with it.” Is that how you feel about it now, too?

JANET RENO: I sure do.

JIM LEHRER: You do bear… you do feel you were responsible?

JANET RENO: I made the decision.

JIM LEHRER: And did you make the decision… do you think you made the wrong decision?

JANET RENO: I’ll never know. Clearly, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t know whether I could have avoided it down the line. There are those that have reviewed this case in-depth and said he could have done the same thing two weeks later with people not bothering him at all.

JIM LEHRER: Another case, a high-visibility case, more recent, was the Elian Gonzalez matter where you ordered him taken by force. Any second thoughts about that?


JIM LEHRER: Why not?

JANET RENO: Because we tried our best for the longest time to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the matter, and at each step, we were thwarted by those that said, “No, we will not turn the boy over to his father.” Finally, I went down and tried my best, only to be told via television after I had left that, “If you want the boy, you’re going to have to take him by force.”

JIM LEHRER: So when you look back on that, you don’t look back with any regrets at all, about at least your decision-making, right?

JANET RENO: No, I don’t.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Republicans have been all over you for not having asked for an independent counsel investigation of the fundraising activities of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Do you have any second thoughts about that?

JANET RENO: No. I’ve carefully reviewed all of those cases. I reviewed the facts and the law myself. I participated in drafting and reasons setting forth why, in each instance, the evidence wasn’t specific and credible, and I feel very comfortable with those decisions.

JIM LEHRER: Were you influenced at all in those decisions by the fact that you are a Democrat and you worked for President Clinton?

JANET RENO: The statute doesn’t really refer to that as the triggering stage, and what you have to do at the triggering stage is see whether there is specific and credible information that triggers the application. And whoever you are, it doesn’t make any difference. I followed the statute.

JIM LEHRER: And so it was totally irrelevant to you, it was not part of your decision-making, even in an unconscious way, when you look back on it?

JANET RENO: Well, it’s part of the decision-making, because by being in the President’s Cabinet, the statute applies, but it applies only if it is triggered. And the triggering was based on the evidence in the law, not based on who was a Democrat and who wasn’t.

JIM LEHRER: So if a Republican or anybody else believes that you made those decisions to protect President Clinton and Vice President Gore, what would you say to them?

JANET RENO: Anybody that thought that I tried to protect the president has forgotten that I asked for the expansion of the Monica Lewinsky matter.

JIM LEHRER: Is that something about which you have any regrets?

JANET RENO: I don’t look at it in terms of regrets. I look at it what I thought I had to do under the law, and I felt that I did the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: What did you finally conclude about the total nature of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Clinton? How do you feel about that whole exercise?

JANET RENO: It’s still pending. The independent counsel who inherited the investigation is still handling the matter, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment.

JIM LEHRER: What was your… How would you describe your working relationship with President Clinton? Did you have one? Did you have an ongoing relationship?

JANET RENO: Yes. I think he’s one of the smartest men I ever met. I think he has a tremendous knowledge of government, and I’ve never seen anybody able to grasp so many different issues with such a sense of how does it affect people. It was just a real pleasure to talk about constitutional issues with him, to talk about legal issues, to talk about how you build partnerships with state and local governments, and he was really a pleasure to watch in action.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the comments being written at the end of the administration and your leaving have said that you are probably the most independent Attorney General that there has ever been, somebody who functioned independent from the president, as distinguished from Attorney Generals in the past who were close friends of the president where they’re kind of the president’s lawyer. Is that a correct assessment?

JANET RENO: I think I was…I think the facts and circumstances were such that I was more independent.

JIM LEHRER: Did you come in to be independent, or it just happened?

JANET RENO: I came in to try to do it the right way, where it was a law enforcement issue that didn’t have national security implications to it, and the president really shouldn’t be involved in terms of dictating what the investigation should… what course it should take. But, other than that, I wanted to do everything I could to be a team player in the Cabinet, and I think on so many different issues we were able to do that, and it has produced some good results.

JIM LEHRER: Did you see your role to be that, as a… not only as a team player, but as a person to carry out the wishes and the policies of the president?

JANET RENO: I think clearly where you have a situation in which the Solicitor General tells me, I cannot in good faith argue a certainly legal position, and if the president told us to argue that position, we would have to tell him, “No, we can’t do that, Mr. President.” But if you have a situation where people within the Department or the Solicitor General’s Office argue one side and the other and there is, say, a split by some of the best lawyers in the office, the president wants to go one way as a matter of policy, say, for example, on the tithing case in which the issue was whether the bankruptcy trustee could recover a tithe paid during the time that the debtor was insolvent, a tithe paid to a church, could that be recovered? We concluded that the bankruptcy trustee could not recover it. The president said he, because of his strong feelings concerning religious freedom, preferred that we take the other policy tact. And I think he has the responsibility and the right to call the policy shots.

JIM LEHRER: And you said, “Fine.” You backed off and did it the way he wanted. But that was not your attitude when it came to any kind of law enforcement decision, is that correct?

JANET RENO: Unless there were national security implications in the air, because he is responsible for the foreign policy of the United States and the faithful execution of the laws; I think it was important that he be involved to the extent necessary to execute those functions.

JIM LEHRER: Like, say, Waco, Elian Gonzalez, those kinds of really tough decisions that you made, what was the relationship there in terms of your consulting or…

JANET RENO: I talked to him, and we talked to him, either I or Web Hubble, the person who had been at the Department of Justice from the beginning, were in touch with the White House to let them know that this was going down. But as I have said at congressional hearings, it was not the president’s responsibility to run a law enforcement operation, and you wouldn’t want the president running a law enforcement operation. It was ours.

JIM LEHRER: The person who has been nominated to take your place, John Ashcroft, has said that he can put aside his own personal views and enforce laws with which he has serious disagreement. Did you have to do that during your eight years?

JANET RENO: I was personally opposed to the death penalty, and yet I think I have probably asked for the death penalty more than most people in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Was that difficult for you to do?

JANET RENO: I had concluded when I was the prosecutor that I would vote against the death penalty if I were in the legislature but that I could ask for it when I was satisfied as to guilt and to the proper application of the penalty.

JIM LEHRER: So if… were there any other examples where you had a serious problem with a law that you had to enforce…at any time?

JANET RENO: I can’t. I can’t think of any.

JIM LEHRER: When the Ashcroft nomination was announced, he and President-elect Bush used the word “integrity” many, many times, and they essentially said that there needs to be a return of integrity to the Attorney General’s office, and it was widely interpreted as a real whack at you. Did you see it that way?

JANET RENO: I just understand that in those times people are saying things that they might come to think a little bit differently about if they were there at the scene, knowing exactly what was going on.

JIM LEHRER: But as far as you’re concerned, the integrity matter is not a problem for you? In other words, you don’t have any… as somebody says, you had an integrity problem, forget it, from your point of view?

JANET RENO: If somebody thinks I have an integrity problem, then the honest thing to do is to tell me what they think it is and to let me address it. But I think what you see in a lot of these political situations is people talking about issues that they haven’t really had a chance to grapple with themselves and have not read the documents that might be the subject matter. And it’s important before people comment that they understand just what the issues are, what the facts are, and how the law applies.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about John Ashcroft replacing you?

JANET RENO: I don’t know him. I haven’t had a chance to watch the hearings, so I know we disagree on a number of matters. I want… If he’s confirmed, I want to make sure that there’s a smooth transition and that it’s done carefully and professionally, as he would like it.

JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned at all that he might come in and change some major decisions of yours or policies of yours?

JANET RENO: It would be his right.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s not a problem for you?

JANET RENO: My earnest hope is that what we started in terms of building partnerships with communities across America will continue, that we will continue our efforts to reduce crime and to reduce violence, that we won’t become complacent. We have initiated programs for reentry offenders — since some 500,000 to 600,000 offenders will come out of prison each year for the next three or four years, we want to have positive alternatives when they come back to the community so they won’t end up committing further crimes. We want to continue the efforts against domestic violence and spread the drug courts, and develop real effective means of providing treatment for drug abusers without having to have them arrested. We want to make sure that… and I think everybody should want to make sure that we have the cyber tools necessary to investigate cyber crimes, and to be prepared to defend against them and to bring people to justice who commit it.

There is so much to be done and so much… I pointed out the other day at the ceremony that we had at the Department of Justice, my predecessors Attorneys General Barr and Thornburgh were there. And I pointed out that party … the institution that we know as the Department of Justice transcends party because we’re building on the Weed and Seed program that Bill Barr announced to Miami when they in August of ’92, and we’re building on an international network that Dick Thornburgh started and he is responsible amongst… with many others for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are so many things that we can do, and are doing, to work together to carry forward policies of both parties that I hope that will happen again.

JIM LEHRER: Now what about Janet Reno? You’re going to… I understand you’re going to go back to Florida, sit on a porch for a week or so, and then drive across the country in your red pickup, is that right?

JANET RENO: I would like to go and explore and see this country. I have had so many opportunities to see it from the air, to see it briefly upon visiting a city or community. And I would like to be able to climb the mountains that I wished I could climb at the time but had to get back to Washington. I would like to visit with people who are so interesting and so…and there are so many wonderful people out there that I would love to have the chance to talk to for a longer time.

JIM LEHRER: In a public way, are we going to hear from Janet Reno again? Are you going to continue to be involved in issues, or is this it?

JANET RENO: No. Until the day I die, or until the day I can’t think anymore, I want to be involved in the issues that I care about. How we make the law real for all people; how we give people access to the law; how we give children an opportunity for a strong and positive future. I’m interested in elder justice and what we can do about elder abuse and neglect. I’m vitally interested in cyber crime, and in preparing law enforcement for a time when crime is international in its origins and its consequences. There is so much to do, and I want to continue those efforts.

JIM LEHRER: Well, good luck to you and thank you for being with us tonight.

JANET RENO: Thank you.