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MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now from Capitol Hill is the Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Senator.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: I don’t know if you were in your chair at the beginning of Jim’s interview with Bob Rubin, the Treasury Secretary, but he – Secretary Rubin said he thinks the President still has the moral authority to lead. Do you agree with that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I do. I think that the presidency, itself, is really the source of authority in many respects, and because of its long history, because of the tremendous standing it has around the world and in this country, because of the power associated with the presidency, there is no question that the authority is there.
MARGARET WARNER: And how did you react, what is your assessment of how the President at his news conference today dealt with the Lewinsky matter?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity. This has been one of those days on the Hill that has kept me away from my desk, much less a television, so I didn’t get a chance to see it.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, one of the questions he essentially declined to answer was whether he still was saying he did not lie under oath in this whole matter, and he said he just didn’t want to get mired in the details. Does that sound like the right tack for him to take?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I, of course, have made myself very clear on that particular issue. I think that it is important not to get mired in all the details and split hairs, as we’ve noted. And I think the President chose not to do that apparently, from what you’ve just said, and I think that was the right decision.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you called on him on Monday to stop all this legal hair-splitting, or I think you said hair splitting on legal technicalities, explain what you meant by that a little more.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I guess I saw more than I needed to over the weekend, and I think that it’s important for us to be as truthful and as blunt spoken and as open and candid about the circumstances as possible, and I didn’t think I saw enough of that over the weekend, and I think that for our purposes, especially here on Capitol Hill, as we contemplate taking this into an investigatory phase, I think it’s important that there be a cooperative environment on both sides. I’m not sure the House is demonstrating that cooperative environment today or to date, but I think the way it starts is that both sides have to demonstrate, and I think legal hair splitting precludes it.
MARGARET WARNER: Were you talking about the President or the President’s lawyers, or both?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, the President’s lawyers, in particular, based upon what I saw over the weekend.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is it you think he should say that – what they should say that would not – that would roll back from legal hair splitting?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, Margaret, I’m the last person to ask about what he should say. I’m not going not get into that. All I think is that the American people have a pretty clear picture of what happened and what happened after the circumstances that are described in the report, and I think that now we’ve just got to figure out what to do about it, and I don’t think that any degree of the kind of semantic tap-dancing that I sometimes see will solve that problem. We just have to be open, candid, and acknowledge, as the President has on several occasions now, that he was wrong in what he did, and I think go from there.
MARGARET WARNER: Have you told the President yourself to essentially call off his lawyers and stop making these semantic distinctions?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I don’t want to talk about what conversations I have with the President. I think it’s important that I have the opportunity to communicate with him without telling the rest of the country about it, and this probably isn’t a good place to start – stop doing.
MARGARET WARNER: So I won’t, of course, ask you what he said in response if you have spoken to him, but, as you know, the President’s lawyers are saying if he were to come forward and say that he did, in retrospect, lie under oath, that might satisfy people on Capitol Hill but it would open him up to possible criminal prosecution. What do you say to that? What to you say to his lawyers on that point?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, frankly, I think that’s down the road in ways that I wouldn’t be too concerned about at this point. I think the more immediate concern is what we’ve got to face here on Capitol Hill. We’ve got to take these things one step at a time. And the step I’m mostly concerned about is what happens here, how do we address it, how do we resolve it, how do we bring it to closure, like the American people really want us to do? Those issues have to be addressed, and the more we think about some legal technicality that could or could not occur six or eight months from now, or a year from now, the less we’re able to resolve the immediate situation that I think is a lot more problematic.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Turning to what is going to happen now, first of all, the most immediate issues that the Judiciary Committee on the House side seems to be occupied with is whether to release a videotape of the President’s grand jury testimony. Do you think that should be released publicly?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I think it’s unfair to release it. I think it’s just another in a series of unfair decisions that the Judiciary Committee thus far has either taken or is contemplating taking. I think it’s wrong. Obviously it has to be viewed in its entire context, and viewed in isolation could present an array of misconceptions about the testimony and about the circumstances, and I think the House Judiciary Committee needs to be very careful. They pledged just last week they would be non-partisan, not only bipartisan but non-partisan; they would be objective. They’ve already begun to violate that, and this is just yet another indication.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re essentially saying if they decide to release the videotape, you would take that as what, an example of extreme partisanship?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I said yesterday that I don’t see our role as being an advocate for the President. But I think we feel very strongly about being an advocate for a fair process. I believe that that really ought to be what we all consider as what is the fair process and anybody can be the arbiter of what a fair process is and how it’s defined, but I think when you do something like that, it is unfair. It is wrong. The American people would realize, I believe, that it’s wrong, and there would be a very negative reaction, probably not only directed toward the President but certainly at the Republicans in Congress for taking the short-sighted and very, very partisan approach that they appear to be contemplating.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Republicans are arguing – as I’m sure you know – that since all House members will be sitting ultimately and having to vote on this that everyone, not just the committee, and perhaps also the public, needs to see all the evidence, and that the videotapes – since the nub of this issue is, did the President commit perjury or not – that that’s the nub of the case and that everyone should see the best evidence, which is the President’s own performance, what do you say to that?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think that there are other ways to do this. If they truly are interested in getting all the information, first of all, it seems to me they have to decide whether they want the inquiry. They haven’t even decided that. They’re already releasing evidence and information and very, very sensitive information at that before they’ve even come to a conclusion as to whether we should have an inquiry. Why are they doing this? Is it to embarrass the President? Is it to thwart the process? Is it to make Democrats feel uncomfortable? What is their motivation here? What’s wrong with the text? What’s wrong with finding ways with which to excerpt out irrelevant parts? I mean, why is it that they have to throw raw data out to be consumed yet again by the American people? I think we need to be careful about that, and they appear to be unwilling to answer questions like that.
MARGARET WARNER: Based on what you’ve – have you read the Starr report in its entirety?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Yes, I have.
MARGARET WARNER: And based on what you read, where do you think this thing should end up? First of all, do you think a full-blown inquiry – impeachment inquiry – is warranted, and what do you think is the best outcome?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m certainly not going to give you a prognosis about where this is all going to go. I would say that what I believe – what we ought to do – what is most important to do is to try to find a non-partisan way with which to bring this to some closure, and I don’t think that there is much disagreement in the – in the American public about this. I think they want it to come to closure. I think we ought to stay here, which is the first step. I think we ought to try to find ways with which to expedite our consideration; we all want due process. We’ve got to absolutely make sure that every consideration is given a fairness, which isn’t happening so far, I might again remind everyone, but I do think that due process – but an expeditious consideration of all these facts – since we really are pretty cognizant now of what the facts are – is warranted and would do a real service to the country and to this particular issue.
MARGARET WARNER: So but expedited process – are you – are you talking really about something that short circuits or adds up to a full blown inquiry, a big impeachment inquiry in the House, a trial in the Senate, perhaps some sort of arrangement, such as – that would end up say with censure?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I’m certainly not adverse to taking a look at that, as I said in my statement on Monday. All the different scenarios and options ought to be carefully considered. I think some people already jump to a conclusion about what ought to be done and I think some people would love to have it all done in the year 2000. But the question is: does the country really need to be subjected to that, that elongated, drawn out, embarrassing process, and what does it do not only to the presidency but to our ability to govern? Those are issues that I don’t think some of our Republican colleagues have thought about very carefully.
MARGARET WARNER: But some of your Republican colleagues are saying that a censure – a quick censure – would essentially be a slap on the wrist and also sidestep the whole constitutional process that was set up by the founding fathers to deal with situations like this.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, again, I’m not advocating for a censure, so I’m sure that that’s a legitimate concern, but obviously there are other ways with which to address the issue of censure. And I’m not sure that there is any particular way with which it would be even described at this point. That’s all a function of the Congress and what we might consider as we look at our options. But clearly, to completely discount anything short of a full impeachment inquiry and then action to be taken by the Senate seems to me to be not again in keeping with the fairness that we all say we want.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the President should resign, or consider resigning?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: That’s a decision that the President should make, and, no, I don’t at this time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, was reported yesterday to have said I think in your caucus luncheon that at least some Democrats are saying, he said, he wasn’t saying it but some Democrats were saying that it might be better for the party’s chances in November elections if the President did resign. Are you hearing that? Do you share that view at all?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, first of all, that isn’t what Senator Biden said, and secondly, I don’t think that it’s widely held, that point of view is widely held in the caucus. I think that most senators are taking the same position that many of us are, which is that we really need to advocate for a fair process. We really want to see ways with which to make sure that the Congress doesn’t fail to address the myriad of other responsibilities that we have before the end of this session. We ought to be doing that. We ought to be taking up the Patient’s Bill of Rights and the array of issues that are dealing directly with the farm crisis right now. We’re not doing that, and I think that’s a real tragedy.
MARGARET WARNER: But some Democrats – such as Congressman Jim Moran – a close ally of the President – said today he thought – and he’d like to get it resolved quickly too – that resignation might be the only way, as he put it, to stop this hemorrhaging within the party, this hemorrhaging within the country. Are you hearing that privately from some of your fellow Democrats?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I haven’t talked to Jim Moran, so I can’t say that I’ve heard it directly, but no, I don’t think that is a very prevalent view today.
MARGARET WARNER: And how much do you think this current affair is affecting your ability and the ability of the President to promote the Democratic agenda on the Hill that you just talked about?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, the biggest by far, the biggest factor in our agenda is the Republican intransigence and reluctance to take it up. We didn’t do anything the entire afternoon because of Republicans’ refusal to allow Democrats to speak on the Senate floor. We wanted to speak on the Patient’s Bill of Rights, and we were precluded from doing that, so rather than allow us to speak on the bill, the Patient’s Bill of Rights, we were not able to even have session. That kind of thing is far more damaging and far more detrimental to the overall ability for us to produce some meaningful legislation and address the problems of this country than anything related to what the President’s experience is.
MARGARET WARNER: And Senator, before we close, just to make sure I understand this, do you think the President can count on Democrats on the Hill to stand with him?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think the President can count on Democrats advocating for a completely fair process. As I said, none of us see ourselves necessarily as advocates for the President as much as we are advocates for a process that will be fair, not only to the President but to the American people.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you very much, Senator Daschle.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: For the record, we invited Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to appear also on the program tonight, but he was not available. We hope to schedule an interview with him soon.