"THE DECISION IS MINE"
December 2, 1997
Attorney General Janet Reno announced she will not seek an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising phone calls made by President Clinton and Vice President Gore. Following excerpts of the attorney general's announcement, Margaret Warner will discuss the decision with Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL). Lastly, Jim Lehrer speaks with Paul Gigot and Tom Oliphant about the announcement.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
A RealAudio version of Attorney General Janet's comments is available.
October 29, 1997:
An administration lawyer explains why tapes of White House coffee were missed.
October 22, 1997:
The Senate committee investigating campaign finance abuses air tapes of White House coffees.
October 15, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno explains to a Senate committee why she extended her review of President Clinton's campaign finance activities.
October 14, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she was extending the investigation into fund-raising calls made by President Clinton.
October 9, 1997:
The House finally began hearing testimony from witnesses looking into the work of DNC donor "Charlie" Yah Lin Trie.
October 7, 1997:
After a contentious beginning, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes began his testimony before the Senate.
September 11, 1997:
The highest ranking Clinton administration official, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, testifies on White House screening procedures for donors and guests.
September 9, 1997:
Former DNC Chair Don Fowler defends the actions of the Democrats during the last election.
July 24, 1997:
Former RNC Chair Haley Barbour testifies before the committee about the fund-raising done by the GOP in 1996.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the campaign finance investigation.
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
U.S. Department of Justice
JIM LEHRER: Now some analysis of the Reno decision and the reaction to it from NewsHour regular Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Is this over, do you think, Paul, I mean, the specific issue of the telephone calls and the independent counsel thing? What do you think of what Sen. Specter just said?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I think the telephone calls issue is over, but I think you saw from the reaction that the political debate is not over, and the investigation is not over. The Vice President's reaction, in particular, I thought was indicative of this when he--in-between what looked like he was going to pop campaign corks he--champagne corks he was so elated he said, now there might be some people here will criticize this but they're all just partisan. I think he was trying to innoculate himself from what are going to be some really hard questions being raised about the attorney general's decision, and, in particular, about her big disagreement with the FBI director.
JIM LEHRER: Hard decisions about Attorney General Reno, herself, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe: Not necessarily. I tend to pick up on Paul's last point about Director Freeh and the attorney general, that that is the thing that is left hanging here this evening. There's no question he submitted a report; there's no question he wanted to go in a different direction for different reasons than she did. But the question is: Will he say so publicly? Would he make public his report? I doubt that very much.
JIM LEHRER: Now, this memo was leaked to you awful people in the press, right? Okay. It has not been formally released.
TOM OLIPHANT: Excuse if one is talking out of school, but let's do it anyway.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: Everybody in this investigation leaks: the targets, the subjects, their lawyers, the Justice Department, the FBI. It is a reporter's dream of a story, but in this particular case you do have the cops, the FBI, intentionally leaking a recommendation they know goes in the opposite direction from their superior. And the question is: To what extent does Director Freeh want to politicize this issue?
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: There's an additional twist here brought by the attorney general, herself, because when she went before the House Judiciary Committee on October 15th, she was on the hot seat. They were probing her about her decision, about her thinking of the independent counsel statute, and she made a promise. She said, I will tell you members of Congress, I will not close off any areas of investigation unless Director Freeh also agrees. That was an extraordinary promise. And what she did in doing that was to make not only her own credibility issue but also Director Freeh's directly at center stage, so the question becomes: Now that she's made this decision with which he disagrees, how is he going to play it? Can he even function in his job anymore?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, now, there's some indication of answers to that this afternoon, of course. Now, from the Justice Department what one hears about their meeting this morning is that--
JIM LEHRER: This a meeting between Reno and Freeh?
TOM OLIPHANT: That's correct. Before the press conference.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: That she made it very clear that as far as she was concerned, there was no avenue, no street, no back alley that wasn't open to Freeh and the FBI, and that--and that, therefore, tomorrow they could stumble upon or happen upon or develop a witness or some piece of information that might even trigger the independent counsel. So as far as she is concerned, this business about avenue of inquiry is not an issue.
JIM LEHRER: Does this thing smell to you, Paul, as though--on the other hand--that it's so public now that one of them is eventually going to have to go and sooner rather than later, is it that serious a disagreement?
PAUL GIGOT: I think Director Freeh really has only one of two choices. He can either resign, or he can go--I think he's going to have to--he's going to be called to Congress and asked to say what he thinks. If he decides not to say anything in public because he can't--everybody knows what he already thinks--then he's going to have to do what Tom says. He's going to have to go off and investigate, I think, on his own because right now his own credibility is at stake. How independent is this investigation going to be? How credible is it going to be? And that's--and he's worried about his own credibility and the credibility of his agency.
TOM OLIPHANT: I take the point, but remember, he has not asserted, and I don't believe did in this report to the attorney general, that the matters that were specifically under investigation called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. He has a different theory of this case from Janet Reno.
PAUL GIGOT: Sure.
TOM OLIPHANT: A different way of approaching the law enforcement process here.
JIM LEHRER: And that has to do with conflict of interest as it relates to the independent counsel law.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely. And scope.
PAUL GIGOT: Scope.
JIM LEHRER: Which was a crucial thing. There was another little segment. One of the questions she was asked after her statement, which we ran almost in its entirety, but the question had to do with the conflict of interest and was just brought up by Sen. Specter, how in the world could the attorney general of the United States investigate the person who hired her and not have a conflict of interest; her answer was--
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, first of all, she's done it three times.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: But much more interestingly, she looks at the law, and here's how she sees it; that there is a trigger in this law that has to be pulled in an act of discretion by the attorney general, or anybody can say anything about the President and Vice President and boom, a special prosecutor has to be appointed because there's some inherent conflict of interest, so, therefore, the law has a requirement, as she put it, that there be specific and credible information indicating that someone may have committed a crime before you can do that. So the law has an affirmative obligation on the attorney general to make that decision.
PAUL GIGOT: It's a brilliantly self-justifying answer, though, because what it says is that somebody has to determine that threshold of evidence for the trigger, and guess who it is? It's the very person--namely the attorney general--who has the conflict of interest.
JIM LEHRER: In the simplest of terms, what she seemed to be saying, see if I'm characterizing this correctly, that if I had determined, I, Janet Reno, had determined that either President Clinton or Vice President Gore had committed a crime, immediately I would have had a conflict of interest, and I would have recommended an independent counsel. But because I made the opposite determination, no conflict of interest, right?
PAUL GIGOT: Right. And that definition of what the threshold is, it's big enough to drive any judgment you want to make through it.
TOM OLIPHANT: Not quite. The requirement in the statute is that you judge this information as to whether it is specific and whether it is credible, so it isn't that you have to decide that the President committed a crime, or the Vice President committed a crime; you have to decide that there is information on the table.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And the disagreement between Freeh and Reno is--
PAUL GIGOT: It's really about the scope of the investigation. I mean, Janet Reno is focusing on--I think you can safely say--the jaywalking violation in this whole thing--the Pendleton Act. Did they make phone calls improperly to solicit from the Oval Office and whatnot? That's very narrowly focused. I think Sen. Durbin makes a good point when he says Republicans went down this cul-de-sac too long. But there's all this other stuff going on that Sen. Specter talked about, which really makes you wonder about the central point that Director Freeh makes, which is, was there a conspiracy from the Oval Office to violate the campaign finance laws to re-elect the President of the United States? That's what all of these different disparate--
JIM LEHRER: Phone calls being only one part of it?
PAUL GIGOT: Only one small part of it.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
TOM OLIPHANT: Come back to the law. That is a question; that might be called a theory. The Freeh approach here--Director Freeh--is conducted. Here's my theory, and now we proceed. Janet Reno doesn't go at it that way. She is the classic inductive investigator. In other words, here's a fact incontrovertible; here's another one; here's another one. I look at them, and at some point they form a mosaic that constitutes a criminal charge. As she put it this afternoon, "I go where the evidence takes us." The Freeh approach is different. There is no evidence of a conspiracy to violate the election laws, but let us assume one for investigative purposes and go out and collect evidence and see if it's true.
PAUL GIGOT: See if there is--I mean, there's a lot of specific evidence the Senate hearings have brought up and the press has reported. You've got the President of the United States in the videotape meeting Mr. Juar Donata from Indonesia, saying, Mr. President, James Ryadi sent me. Well, we know that this fellow is in the middle of a lot of the problems. And the question is that strikes a lot of people as credible evidence.
TOM OLIPHANT: Strikes a lot of people.
PAUL GIGOT: He's on tape.
TOM OLIPHANT: But for the cops--you're assuming stuff that is not evidence.
PAUL GIGOT: You're not saying that it's proof that he broke the law; you're saying it's grounds--argument it's grounds to think that there may be a connection, let's investigate it.
JIM LEHRER: Paul, do you believe that the Republican leadership should now demand that Janet Reno and Louie Freeh come before the proper committees of Congress and explain this decision and their disagreement in public?
PAUL GIGOT: I do. I do. I think it's--I think they have an obligation actually to do that. One of the things that the special counsel law does--and one reason I don't like it--is it let's everybody else off the hook. But now that she's not going to name the special counsel everybody else has to do their job. Congress has to tough it out and say we can be called partisan, but we have a constitutional obligation here. The Justice Department now has to do its job, the FBI has to do its job, and the press has to pay attention in a way that we might have ben able to say, well, pass it off as philosopher King and then let him decide. We can't do that anymore.
TOM OLIPHANT: I think it's a lot tougher when you think about what is supposed to happen next Tuesday, and why I still have some doubt whether it will happen. You ask the attorney general--but more interestingly Freeh--to go up to Capitol Hill in the middle of an ongoing investigation, the biggest one they have under the roof of the Justice Department, and talk about it, talk about the evidence that caused him to come to some kind of tentative conclusion about a theory in the case. How are you supposed to do that and perform your role as the director of the FBI? It was interesting that Janet Reno said very cryptically this afternoon that in their talk this morning they talked about the future. Well, I think under the heading of the future is a relationship where we don't know so much about their positions.
JIM LEHRER: And they both stay in place.
TOM OLIPHANT: I would think so.
JIM LEHRER: We'll see. Thank you both very much.