TOPICS > Politics

White House Travel Office Probe

January 5, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: At issue is a two-year old memo that drew congressional accusations of a cover-up today. Written by the former White House director of administration, David Watkins, the memo identifies Hillary Rodham Clinton as a central figure in the 1993 firings of the White House Travel Office employees. Watkins wrote: “Foster regularly informed me that the First Lady was concerned and desired action. The action desired was the firing of the Travel Office staff.” We get more on this now from Michael Isikoff, a correspondent with Newsweek Magazine. Mr. Isikoff, just tell us who is David Watkins, and why is this memo of his prompting congressional Republicans to charge cover-up?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, Newsweek: David Watkins is the former chief of administration at the White House, an old friend and business partner of Hillary Clinton’s. He was brought to Washington as part of the Little Rock crowd to actually run the day-to-day operations of the White House. He didn’t have a very successful run at the White House. Not only was he reprimanded for his role in the firing of the White House Travel Office employees; he was ultimately fired a year or so later when it was discovered he had commandeered a White House helicopter to fly to Camp David for a golf outing. But, nevertheless, this document is probably the single most damaging thing that has emerged yet about any of the matters that have been under investigation involving the Clintons, because it is the first really clear evidence that, that White House underlings may well have conspired to conceal and protect the First Lady from any allegations of misconduct.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what’s in it that we haven’t been hearing from the White House for the past two years? I mean, what contradicts what the White House has already said?

MR. ISIKOFF: It directly contradicts what the White House has said.


MR. ISIKOFF: Well, the, the official White House line from Hillary Clinton in responses to the GAO is that Mrs. Clinton played no role in the decision to terminate the White House Travel workers; that she was merely informed of the, of the questions that were raised about those travel workers, and that she did not, in fact, consult with, or had no memory of consulting Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer and friend of the Clintons, who was really the driving force behind the firings. It was Mr. Thomason’s interest in grabbing some business for himself, taking over the Travel Office for himself, that led to the firing of the workers. Mrs. Clinton said in responses to the GAO in 1994 that she had no specific recollection of any particular conversation with Harry Thomason about this matter.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this memo says what?

MR. ISIKOFF: And this memo says that, in fact, Harry Thomason went to Hillary Clinton, told him about what he wanted, which is that these workers to be fired, his concerns about the Travel Office matter was read, and that once it went out to the First Lady’s agenda as a result, he was regularly pressured both by Mr. Thomason and Vince Voster to get those travel workers fired, get them fired immediately, and that is what the First Lady wanted as soon as possible. Mr. Watkins says in the memo that it was pretty clear to him that there would be “hell to pay” if he did not get rid of those travel workers “in conformity with the First Lady’s wishes.”

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what is the White House saying today about the Republicans saying that this is a cover-up?

MR. ISIKOFF: Well, the White House has been in something of a bind on this. They’re having trouble explaining why just now this memo had–is surfacing when there had been repeated requests from the Justice Department, the GAO, and the Congress for all documents relating to the Travel Office.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For the past two years?

MR. ISIKOFF: For the past two years.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So what are they saying about why it surfaced?

MR. ISIKOFF: Well, they are trying to say–they first made the argument that this is really nothing new, that accounts of Hillary Clinton’s role in this had already been included in a couple of reports. That is true up to a point and only up to a very small point. The accounts to date give varying degrees of Mrs. Clinton’s involvement, but they all show considerably less involvement than Mr. Watkins says in the memo. Mr. Watkins depicts Hillary Clinton as the central figure ordering these Travel workers to be dismissed.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And briefly, there were some other billing records that had been missing about the Roses’ law firm and Mrs. Clinton’s work. That surfaced today too, the White House discovered. How significant is that?

MR. ISIKOFF: Well, we don’t know yet. They are just now being released. Sen. D’Amato is saying they show more contacts and more involvement by Mrs. Clinton.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the White House is saying what?

MR. ISIKOFF: Well, the White House is, is disputing that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What’s next? I mean, where could this go, just very briefly?

MR. ISIKOFF: Well, very briefly, I think that the surfacing of this memo really does raise questions about the authenticity of White House versions on all these matters, Madison Guaranty, Whitewater, the Travel Office, the handling of documents, and Vince Foster’s death. A lot of the White House’s accounts, to date, have rested on people accepting in good faith the–


MR. ISIKOFF: –professions of what the White House has said.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Michael Isikoff, thank you for joining us.

MR. ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.