October 31, 1997
The Online Explainers take your question on the investigation.
The NewsHour's coverage of the Congressional Investigation.
The inside stories on the political fight behind the public investigation.
The investigation is big news in Washington, but how's it playing around the country.
A closer look at the issues really under scrutiny by the Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: Since early July that's how Chairman Fred Thompson began each and every Senate Committee hearing investigating charges of fund-raising abuses during last year's presidential campaign. But today, after 32 days of hearings conducted at a cost of $2.6 million, Thompson said his committee would suspend its public investigation.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Chairman, Governmental Affairs Committee: What does that mean? That means that if we need to have hearings, we'll have hearings. I will not hesitate to call us back in during the recess to have hearings if they need to be conducted. We do not have the caliber of witnesses and information at this stage of the game which I think needs to be additional information that the American people are generally not aware of. We do not have that kind of information to put witnesses on next week, and I'm not going to have hearings just for the sake of having hearings.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson would need another vote of the full Senate to extend the current investigation beyond its previously approved deadline of December 31st, but he admitted interest in continuing the hearings among some Senators--Republicans included--already has worn thin.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: You will have to talk to them as to their reasons for that, but that's my impression, which leaves me with a December 31 cutoff deadline, and necessity to write a report.
KWAME HOLMAN: The hearings, which focused for the most part on Democratic fund-raising, were characterized, especially in recent weeks, by intense partisanship.
SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) Michigan: Mr. Chairman, we're trying to get evidence of what President Bush did at the White House--
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, it's not going to happen. I'm going to give you another five minutes to--or whatever time you've got left here. And then we're going to recess.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: I'm not going to take another five minutes. I'm not going to take another five minutes because I can summarize this in one minute.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson said another problem was the committee simply was too big.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I've often said, you know, if you want to design a system set up where you'll be sure not to find out much, get 16 Senators behind a table and give them 10 minutes apiece.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thomas took questions from reporters packed tightly into the Senate's press gallery. He repeated his belief that the most significant revelation to come from the hearings was the methods used by President Clinton to manipulate the campaign fund-raising system.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: We saw the President push--push the window of opportunity because of a couple of lawyers on his payroll--the DNC payroll--gave 'em an interpretation so they could do that, and, in my opinion, pushed way beyond the limits to the extent that we need to have an independent counsel look at it. Secondly, I will say the use of the White House in ways that President Carter, Ford, Reagan, whoever, Bush, never did, and I think never would, is extremely unfortunate, regardless of the legal assessment that you make at the end of the day. That is a demeaning situation. Now, where does demeaning end and the legality--illegality end? That's not for me to say. It is for me to say that we need an independent person to make that determination.
KWAME HOLMAN: What never materialized at the hearings was clear evidence of a Chinese government plot to influence last year's elections, which Thompson highlighted on the very first day.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I speak of allegations concerning a plan hatched during the last election cycle by the Chinese government and designed to pour illegal money into American political campaigns. You know, as I've said about 30 times, I went to the FBI director and the CIA director after our staff reviewed their materials and said this is what's in your materials, come and testify to that. And they said, no, we can't but we'll help you work on a statement. So what do we know? We know that there was a plan--it involved high levels of the Chinese government--to affect our electoral process. And we know that it started out as a counterespionage investigation and it's now a criminal investigation. That's pretty significant to me.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Thompson admitted his hearings didn't generate the same public interest as high-profile congressional inquiries of the past.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Watergate, I guess, spoiled us a little bit. We had an elaborate taping system and a White House lawyer, who testified against his own client, being the President of the United States. And that kind of raised the bar for congressional hearings. But generally, congressional hearings are not grand juries; they're not prosecuted bodies; they're not soap operas; they're forums that are designed to be able to pull back the curtain a little bit for the American people and let them see how their governments operate; assess responsibility to the extent that we can, then move that responsibility down the street to the Justice Department, where appropriate. The other portion of our duty is to see how we can make our system better. It's basically a legislative purpose. If we ever get away--incidentally--from the legislation purpose of what we're doing--if we don't tie all of what we're doing to some legislative purpose--the courts are going to quit upholding any of our activities. We need to keep that in mind. That's the reason that we're in business fundamentally. We lose sight of that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson said he was proud his hearings helped produce the Senate's recent debate on campaign finance reform, the first in twenty years.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Twenty years. And I pick up the paper today and say we're going to have an up or down vote next March. My friends, that's progress. That's something that hasn't been done before. I'm not saying it's because of us but we played a part in that. And I'm proud of that, as I say, regardless of where you come down on that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Now, Congress's only active campaign fund-raising investigation is in the House. As for Senator Thompson, he'll now focus on writing a comprehensive report on his committee's investigation, drawing on the testimony of 70 witnesses and information gathered through 418 subpoenas, 198 depositions, and 200 interviews. What he will not have is the testimony of thirty-two people who invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify and ten who fled the country.