OPENING THE FLOOD GATES?
JUNE 18, 1996
Republican members of the Senate's Whitewater committee released a report sharply criticizing White House officials, and Hillary Clinton in particular, for their attempts to impede the investigation of the death of fomer White House counsel Vince Foster and other Whitewater-related events. Democratic members of the committee, though, charge that Republicans never proved that misdeeds occurred. Jim Lehrer interviews two ranking members of the committee.
Kwame Holman reports on the Republican charges contained in the Whitewater report and the misgivings about the whole investigation detailed in the Senate Democrats' report.
NewsHour regular political commentors Shields & Gigot put the twin reports in perspective.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's statement on the release of the Whitewater report. Sen. D'Amato was chair of the Whitewater committee.
The preface to the Senate Democrats' version of the Whitewater report. Democratic members were highly critical of how the committee conducted their investigation.
After a copy of the Republican's Whitewater report was leaked to the Washington Post, White House spokesperson Mike McCurry labelled the document as a partisan attack.
MAY 28: Hillary Clinton discusses Whitewater and her role in the White House with Jim Lehrer.
FEB. 22: Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes testifies before the Whitewater committee.
DEC 15: Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and Sen. Paul Sarbanes debates the merits of the Whitewater committee's investigations.
Click here for a complete list of the NewsHour's coverage of Whitewater
JIM LEHRER: Now to two key members of the Senate Whitewater Committee, Sen. Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. Sen. Bennett, what general conclusion should be drawn from your side's conclusions?
SEN. ROBERT BENNETT, (R) Utah: Well, I'll tell you what my conclusions were sitting through the whole experience, going back all the way to when Sen. Riegle chaired the hearings in the previous Congress. I came to the conclusion early on that the career people in government who testified before us were the people that we could rely on the most, the people who had no political stake in the outcome of this thing one way or the other, whether they were park police, park service employees, secret service employees, FBI, and so on.
As you move closer to the White House and people with a political agenda, you find a very different kind of spin being put on things, much more defensive, in many cases very forgetful as to what goes on, so the conclusion that I draw listening to the career people is that there has been a very deliberate attempt on the part of the White House to make sure that as little as possible is known about what went on and then when things do become known that they are, they are downplayed in their importance as much as possible, and I finally came to the conclusion this was orchestrated, it was deliberate, and it was orchestrated at the highest levels in the White House. Harold Ickes came across as the man who was in charge of all of this. That came out in the notes that we read from the various legal meetings that were held and notes taken by lawyers. And whether or not this attempt at spin control crossed the line and became illegal activity is a decision for Mr. Starr to make, but for me, it was very disturbing.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sarbanes, that's a tough charge. How do you respond to that, sir?
SEN. PAUL SARBANES, (D) Maryland: Well, Jim, my first response is that no misconduct or abuse of power on the part of either the President or the First Lady was demonstrated in the course of this 13-month hearing. The Republicans consistently overstated, and they seek to press facts into a preconceived conclusion. Let me just pick up on what Sen. Bennett said. The career people said that their investigation into the Foster papers and Foster's death was not inhibited by any conduct that took place. In other words, they testified that they were able to do a full investigation and a full inquiry. Now what's happening here, you have a lot of "might have beens" and "could have beens." I've looked at the card you flashed up there about the Republican conclusions, and that consistently was reflected there. What they do is they give a--the most sinister interpretation to everything that occurs in an effort I think to reach political conclusions and to have a political impact.
Unfortunately this inquiry deteriorated very badly over the--particularly over the course of 1996 when we first started the inquiry that was to conclude by the end of February. And one of the reasons for that was to keep it out of the election year, and it was most manifest over this last weekend when you had this concerted leaking of the Republicans' report and an effort, as it were, to get out there and score political points. That was a gross abuse of the process and in my judgment clearly reflected an effort to manipulate the process for strictly-political purposes. Neither the President nor the First Lady was shown by any of the evidence to have engaged in any abuse of power, and that goes for the President both as President in the use of federal power and as governor in the state of Arkansas. I mean, we examined those things in excruciating detail, and did not turn up evidence that would support those kinds of allegations which, which the Republicans have been making. So I see it all as a partisan endeavor in an election year, I regret to say.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bennett.
SEN. BENNETT: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: That's an equally serious charge.
SEN. BENNETT: Yes. Let me go back to another thing that concerns me that's part of this--
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, if we could just--what about Sen. Sarbanes' charge that what you all were up to was a political exercise--
SEN. BENNETT: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: --from the very beginning and it just escalated in the last few weeks with the leaking of reports, et cetera?
SEN. BENNETT: Clearly, I reject that characterization of what went on. I don't think it's accurate, and I--
SEN. SARBANES: I'd like Sen. Bennett to tell us the basis or the justification for these gross abuse in the leaking of their report over the course of this past weekend.
SEN. BENNETT: I wasn't in Washington over the past weekend. I have no firsthand knowledge of whether that did or did not happen, and, and have no comment on that one--
JIM LEHRER: What about Sen. Sarbanes' additional point, that there was no evidence about President Clinton abusing power in any way whatsoever, what is your response to that?
SEN. BENNETT: Yes, yes, I was going to address that.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Excuse me. All right.
SEN. BENNETT: I don't know the degree to which the activity that the Clintons were involved in in Arkansas was legal or illegal. I'm not a lawyer. I won't make that judgment. But I think it's clearly embarrassing, given the image that the Clintons have tried to maintain and that their political handlers and supporters have created for them, I think it's embarrassing to find the Clintons that close to the kinds of people that we met through this whole process, the Lassiters, the McDougals, et cetera, those kinds of people.
Now, there was clear evidence, in my view, that whether to cover up the embarrassment or cover up some other kind of activity, the White House went to extreme lengths to make sure that we did not find out what really went on, except under the heaviest kind of pressure from the committee--subpoenas, and documents that were told we couldn't get, and then we persisted, and then we finally got, and then were told, oh, no, you see, you got the document, it doesn't prove anything at all, when, in my view, it did, and then we got tremendous pressure in terms of personal attacks on the integrity of the chairman through the press, attacks on the integrity of the special prosecutor, attempts, in my view, to turn the issue away from what it was we were looking at to outside circumstances. So I agree with Sen. Sarbanes that it became far more partisan than it started, and I agree with Sen. Sarbanes that that's regrettable, but I don't agree with him that the Republicans are the ones who caused it.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sarbanes--
SEN. SARBANES: Jim, let me--
JIM LEHRER: Sure, all right.
SEN. SARBANES: Just let me make this point. We had one hearing in which it was asserted that the Republican position was that Clinton while governor had given a lease, state leases had gone to McDougal in return for a fund-raiser that McDougal held for Governor Clinton. Well, as it turned out, the leases were negotiated a year before the fund-raiser ever happened. Secondly, the lease was negotiated by state career people who did all the negotiating and made the decisions, and they located it in this particular area of Little Rock, which they were trying to improve. So the testimony showed that that was just not the case, that was the facts. One of my Republican colleagues comes to the hearing, not fully appreciating the lay of the land, and he gets the fact that, in effect, the testimony is showing that it never was the way the Republicans were trying to portray it, and this is what he said, I want you to listen to this, he blurts out, he says, "Mr. Chairman, isn't the point here simply to draw a conclusion that then Governor Clinton played a major role in the selection of this building?". I mean, that was the game plan. That was the script. Now, to his credit, Chairman D'Amato at the time said, "Well, look, we've got to look at the facts. We've got to develop the facts." But that gives you some indication of the kind of process we were engaged in.
JIM LEHRER: What about, speaking of process, what about Sen. Bennett's charge--and it's been made by other Republican members, including the chairman of the committee--that the White House resisted getting this story out at every turn through, uh, uh--are you not hearing me?
SEN. BENNETT: Sen. Sarbanes lost--
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sarbanes has lost his--will somebody there--
SEN. SARBANES: Do you want me--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. If you'd hold that up to your ear--do you hear me now, Sen. Sarbanes?
SEN. SARBANES: I can hear it. I'll hold this to my ear.
JIM LEHRER: Terrific.
SEN. SARBANES: And listen to you.
JIM LEHRER: Terrific. Imagine that you're on radio. All right. Look, Senator Bennett charged, Sen. Sarbanes, that the White House resisted from the very beginning getting this story out through resistance in terms of submitting documents, et cetera, et cetera, and people having bad memories, whatever. How do you respond to that general charge?
SEN. SARBANES: Well, first of all, the White House provided a tremendous amount of material to the committee. I mean, they were inundated with requests for material and tried to respond to that. We did have instances in which, you know, there was a hang-up. In the end, we were able to work, to work those out. I'm frank to tell you I don't think that the Clinton people understood the almost paranoid nature of what they would come up against. I mean, everything they did was interpreted in the worst light. And if I had advice to give 'em, I'd simply say, well, you just have to realize that people are out really to blacken you, to try to destroy you, in a sense, and they're going to put the worst possible interpretation that they can, and so things that you do that are perfectly innocent and harmless are going to be twisted on you, and you have to understand and anticipate that when a political exercise of the sort that we've just been through is underway. And I regret to say that. I've been in these inquiries before. I, you know, the partisanship of this one was very disappointing and for me very frustrating. We tried very hard to keep this thing on the, on the straight path, which is where it ought to be, but, you know, we had--every day we had these wild allegations that were being made. Then we would hold a hearing and disprove the wild allegation, and the next day we'd go on to the next wild allegation.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bennett, what is your own view about what First Lady Hillary--First Lady Hillary Clinton's culpability is in this whole saga?
SEN. BENNETT: Well, again, I'm not an attorney, so I'm a little nervous about the word "culpability." Uh, my view--
JIM LEHRER: Responsibility. Let me change that. That's a legal term. I'm not sure I know what it means either.
SEN. BENNETT: Okay.
JIM LEHRER: Let's say responsibility.
SEN. BENNETT: Responsibility.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. BENNETT: Uh, my view is that--right from the beginning Mrs. Clinton was not involved in anything illegal. I don't think that the things she did in her practice with the Rose Law Firm, the things she did vis-a-vis Madison Guaranty, I don't understand everything she did with respect to Castle Grande and that transaction.
JIM LEHRER: That's a separate transaction--
SEN. BENNETT: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: --that related to one of the savings & loans.
SEN. BENNETT: Right.
JIM LEHRER: We could spend the rest of the evening trying to explain--
SEN. BENNETT: Yeah, going through the details.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. BENNETT: But I come back to my earlier comment. I soon realized that a lot of the things she was doing, if not illegal or maybe not even improper, were certainly embarrassing, would certainly be embarrassing for--
JIM LEHRER: You mean back in Arkansas?
SEN. BENNETT: Before--
JIM LEHRER: Before she became the First Lady?
SEN. BENNETT: Yeah. The things she did back in Arkansas would be embarrassing politically in Washington if they were found out. I've seen press reports where she's been quoted as using that word in her opposition to this special counsel. I don't want to give too much credence to those, less they be, turn out to be hearsay, but it's been published that she opposed the creation of the special counsel because she said It would be embarrassing for me to have people go back and do these things. I don't think these are, are evil people. I think they've, they started out on a course to try to protect a particular image. That's the normal thing that we politicians do far too much, and then they got embroiled in the attempt to protect the image and pretty soon, you had people, I think, skating very close to the edge of crossing the line between spin control and obstruction of justice.
JIM LEHRER: Including Mrs. Clinton?
SEN. BENNETT: Well, we didn't question Mrs. Clinton. I don't think we should have, but certainly many of the people who came before us who were her agents are in that gray area, and I think the, the special prosecutor is going to have to look long and hard at them and the various things that, that they did.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sarbanes, how do you feel about how Mrs. Clinton's been treated in all of this by the Republican majority?
SEN. SARBANES: Well, Jim, I have great difficulty in understanding the venom directed towards Mrs. Clinton by some of my Republican colleagues, not to--to his credit, not Sen. Bennett. But a number of his colleagues on the committee are venomous in their attitude towards Mrs. Clinton. And, you know, this inquiry, 13 months, did not uncover any wrongdoing on the part of the First Lady. I mean, she's been buffeted about and she's been used as a target, and I very much regret that. Let me give you one easy example. The billings records show that Mrs. Clinton worked 60 hours over a 15-month period on these Madison matters. She termed that "minor." I frankly--used to be--I was a lawyer before--I still am a lawyer but I used to practice before I came to the Congress--I regard 60 hours over 15 months as minor. But don't take my word for it. Jay Stevens, who came before us to testify, he was part of the Pillsbury Firm, who did that extended examination for the RTC, did 340 hours in a year's period and then he sort of faded out of the case. And he testified himself at the witness table that he regarded that as minor. Now that was 340 hours over a year's period. So they take Mrs. Clinton and they sort of parse every word that she says, this tremendous effort to sort of try to catch her out, somehow establish some inconsistency that her recollection now was not exactly like her recollection was two years before, or that she characterizes something as minor and someone wants to argue that it's major. Now, I--I have difficulty understanding why there's this tremendous impetus on the part of some members of that committee in terms of directing an animus towards Mrs. Clinton, and I think people ought to understand that that's part of what's been going on here.
JIM LEHRER: You--quickly--Sen. Bennett, is that a fair charge against some of your colleagues?
SEN. BENNETT: Well, certainly some of my colleagues feel very strongly about this, and sometimes their language has been more harsh than language that I would use.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. BENNETT: But I, I will say that I have, I have personally some great concerns about some of the conduct that I saw on the part of people who have been installed at the very highest levels in the White House.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
SEN. BENNETT: I have concern that I think maybe I don't get as excited as some of my colleagues about, but the concern is very, very deep.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Senators both, thank you very, very much.