EXTENDING THE INVESTIGATION
October 14, 1997
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JIM LEHRER: Attorney General Reno's decision to expand the Clinton fund-raising investigation. Roberto Suro has been covering that story for the Washington Post. Welcome.
ROBERT SURO, Washington Post: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: What exactly did the attorney general decide today?
ROBERT SURO: She asked a three-judge panel of appellate court judges to allow her to open a preliminary investigation to determine whether President Clinton violated a law prohibiting fund-raising on federal property.
JIM LEHRER: And this is--this is the end of that first 30-day period, right, which was called what? That was just--
ROBERT SURO: A 30-day review.
JIM LEHRER: A review.
ROBERT SURO: Which is--
JIM LEHRER: And does that mean that she found cause to think that the President may have violated the law, or is this more of a procedural thing?
ROBERT SURO: It's a procedural matter in that she said in her request that she was seeking the preliminary investigation because she had been unable to determine during the 30-day review whether there was information pointing to the commission of a crime or not. And on the one hand, you have a sitting President who's the subject of a preliminary investigation, which is a serious thing. On the other it was triggered basically in order to seek more time to determine whether there is, in fact, any information pointing to a crime.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the crime here is that--and he has said, has he not, that--he said, "I may have made some phone calls but I don't remember." Isn't that what is in the public record at least on this?
ROBERT SURO: Yes, that's right.
JIM LEHRER: And the investigation will determine if, in fact, he made some calls.
ROBERT SURO: Not just whether he made some calls but what was said. There'd be--it's only a violation if he solicited campaign money. The investigation also has to determine where the phone calls were made from.
JIM LEHRER: Whether from the Oval Office or the residence. And there's a difference. Explain the difference.
ROBERT SURO: Right. Traditionally because the White House is the President's home there's been a recognition that a President who's also a political candidate can conduct political events in the residential areas of the White House. So a phone call made from the Oval Office might break the law. A phone call made a few feet away upstairs in the residence would not. And the third question that has to be determined is what was done with the money. If the money went into so-called "soft money" accounts, the campaign money used by the parties for general purposes, Reno has said in the past, that would not violate the law. If, however, it went into so-called "hard money" accounts, specifically used to support an individual campaign, then, in fact, it would be a violation.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you said a moment ago--and this is important, is it not, as to what words the President may have used in the call--
ROBERT SURO: Right.
JIM LEHRER: If he says, hey, I need your help, that may not be a fund-raising call, but it might be based on what's come before and afterward. It's very complicated, isn't it?
ROBERT SURO: It is complicated. In fact, there's been some suggestion that he's really probably talked to some donors, and there is some evidence that he actually had phone calls with people who made contributions. It's possible that he might have just said, you know, look, we're in this campaign, it's really important, you've helped me before; you know, I know that you're on our side, and somebody will be getting to you, who then says, look, we need $50,000.
JIM LEHRER: But if the President doesn't say, hey, I want $50,000 or $100,000 or can you send money, then it may not be a violation of the law? We don't know.
ROBERT SURO: We don't know, and it's one of the things that Reno has to decide.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. When she--this new period--for this preliminary investigation now--it runs till December, correct?
ROBERT SURO: That's right. December 2nd.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what are the options that she has in terms of what decision she could make at the end of this time?
ROBERT SURO: She basically will have three choices. The independent counsel process is governed by this special division of the U.S. appellate court here in Washington. And she has to go to them and report the findings of this investigation. She can ask for and independent counsel, basically say that we have found grounds to investigate. She can ask for a one-time, 60-day extension and say we need more time to look at this, or to stop the process she has--
JIM LEHRER: That would be in addition to the 60 days she's just had then, I mean, and the one that she would have had under the request of today?
ROBERT SURO: Right. She can ask for a one-time--
JIM LEHRER: Right. Okay.
ROBERT SURO: I need a little more time to look at this.
JIM LEHRER: Gotcha.
ROBERT SURO: To stop the whole thing she has to say there are no reasonable grounds to investigate this further.
JIM LEHRER: Should today's decision be read in any kind of way as to where she's leaning in terms of the end result? Does today mean, hey, she's found something, that's why she's going to the next step?
ROBERT SURO: I don't think so. In fact, her notification to this panel of judges, which is a very sparse legal document two paragraphs long, she says clearly that during the course of the 30-day review they were unable to decide whether there was specific or credible evidence that the President might have committed a crime. So I think it would be a mistake to read into this a sense of culpability or a sense that she's leaning towards seeking an independent counsel.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the issue of President Clinton being interviewed by one of the attorney general's investigators, where does that stand at this moment?
ROBERT SURO: My understanding is that there are still discussions underway as to the scope and the exact nature of such an interview. And the President has indicated a willingness in principle to be questioned and the attorney general has stated interest in principle to talk to--and the details, I think, are being worked out, as they would be between investigators and any client who has good lawyers.
JIM LEHRER: But would this be something that's said under oath like a legal deposition, or would it be like an FBI agent interviewing a potential witness, or what?
ROBERT SURO: Some of what's being discussed--and in fact, the President is both--he is both the subject of this preliminary investigation now--but he's also a potential witness in the acts of others. And--
JIM LEHRER: So he would be liable to the normal things of self-incrimination and all the rest, would he not?
ROBERT SURO: That's right. He would be an ordinary citizen, I think, under--once the terms of such an interview are decided.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. But no decision has been made yet to do that?
ROBERT SURO: Not that I know of.
JIM LEHRER: Roberto, thank you very much.
ROBERT SURO: Thank you.