MS. RENO VS. CONGRESS
October 15, 1997
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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
KWAME HOLMAN: Even with Attorney General Janet Reno ready to testify before them, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee didn't bother to ask the question they most want answered: Will she request the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton's fund-raising related activities at the White House? Yesterday, Reno put off having to make that decision when she extended her preliminary investigation until at least the first week in December. But this morning Committee Chairman Henry Hyde made it clear from the start he thinks an independent counsel should be appointed.
REP. HENRY HYDE, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: I question her view that soft money is not covered under criminal law. I question her notion that the White House belongs to the President to use as he pleases. I find her belief that she has no conflict of interest frankly astounding. I'm not alone in believing her situation fairly bristles with conflicts of interest. The standard response that this matter is under investigation and that it cannot be discussed has some merit. And we don't want to compromise any ongoing investigation, but at some point questions must be answered if only to build confidence that a rigorous investigation is underway and the justices are merely circling the wagons to defend the White House.
KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney General Reno has heard congressional Republicans repeat those criticisms for months, and she repeated the response she has given for months.
The Attorney General defends her actions.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: When the statute is triggered with respect to those categories of covered persons, I have shown I will trigger it, and I have shown most recently I will trigger it, whether it is the President of the United States or the Vice President or cabinet member. I am going to do it regardless of pressure. I am going to ignore pressure. I am going to do it based on the evidence and the law. I have a profound respect for you, and I think we may disagree on the law. We may disagree on the evidence. But I'm going to do it based on what I think is right, based on the evidence, the law, and the independent counsel statute.
KWAME HOLMAN: Then Reno added a personal note.
JANET RENO: Some say it would only be natural for me to act in a manner which protects a President who made me attorney general and in the manner that protects political supporters. But nothing is further from the truth. If I don't have this job, I go home to Miami. And now that we've got a World Series team, that has some merit too. As I've indicated to you, I've asked for the appointment of an independent counsel. I'm not afraid to do it no matter what the circumstances if the evidence and the law justify it. I've prosecuted Democratic congressmen, and I have prosecuted Republican congressmen. I call it like I see it regardless of the person or the party.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reno said she couldn't talk about the specifics of her ongoing investigation but Chairman Hyde went ahead and questioned her anyway.
REP. HENRY HYDE: Ms. Reno, you have a grand jury empaneled. Could you tell us what they're looking at, what is the purpose, what laws are they considering?
JANET RENO: Mr. Chairman, as I indicated to you, I cannot discuss an investigation generally in terms of steps that we're taking and particularly with respect to a grand jury. Grand jury secrecy provisions prohibit me from furnishing you the information.
REP. HENRY HYDE: May I ask you this. In the course of the grand jury's functioning, have you subpoenaed any documents or tapes or records or memos from the White House?
JANET RENO: I am again told that I am limited in what I can say with respect to a grand jury subpoena and what it seeks and the methods that we have taken to enforce it.
REP. HENRY HYDE: I just want to know if you've subpoenaed any. You don't specify. Have you used the subpoena for the grand jury to subpoena any documents or records or tapes or memos?
JANET RENO: I am told again that I cannot discuss under the grand jury secrecy provisions what a subpoena seeks or what is done to enforce it.
REP. HENRY HYDE: Even if it's generic and such as documents--you can't tell us whether you've subpoenaed documents.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hyde's persistence drew fire from the committee's Democrats.
REP. JOHN CONYERS, (D) Michigan: I must respectively object to the continued persistent line of questioning that you're applying to the attorney general of the United States. She cited you the statute. If you disagree with her interpretation of it, fine, but this cross-examining, trying to find something that they're doing that you--you can't do it under the statute, with all due respects, sir.
REP. HENRY HYDE: Well, I thank you for your interruption.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin continued to question Attorney General Reno sharply.
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, (R) Wisconsin: Madam Attorney General, when I woke up this morning and turned down the TV and the radio, there was replayed one of the newly released tapes of Mr. Clinton's fund-raising activities. And during the segment that I saw and heard on the TV and radio he was praising Mr. John Huang as being one who always came through sometimes even when the President apparently felt that Mr. Huang wouldn't be able to come through.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (Video 1996) I've known John Huang a very long time, at least to be as young as we are. And when he told me this event was going to unfold as it has tonight I wasn't quite sure I believed him. But he has never told me anything that didn't come to pass and all have you made it possible, and I want you to know I'm very grateful to you.
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Now, you know, I grant you that this tape became public after you released your latest letter, which I think is basically trying to buy more time. And I think that this is new and credible evidence that the President at least had knowledge of Mr. Huang's activities.
JANET RENO: There is nothing in the statement that you provided to me just now that indicated that the President had any knowledge of any criminal activity. And to suggest that is to engage in the rumor and innuendo that we try to avoid in the Department of Justice to make sure that the power of the federal government is not directed towards people in an unwarranted manner.
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: But Madam Attorney General, that's the kind of thing that is destroying your credibility because the tape speaks for itself; the people of America--
SPOKESPERSON: Will the gentleman yield?
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: No, I will not yield. The people of America--
SPOKESPERSON: Will the gentleman yield?
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: For the Justice Department and its leader to say that the President didn't do anything wrong by pouring effusive praise on Mr. Huang, who I think has proven to have done something wrong because the DNC returned over a million and a half dollars to the donors, you know, is something that really destroys your credibility and the credibility of your department, Madame Attorney General, and I think that that alone ought to be enough for you to wash your hands of the affair and to appoint an independent counsel.
JANET RENO: Let us go back over it because what you said is you really come through for us. It did not say you come through for us by illegal acts; it does not say I know that you did something wrong; it does not say that I participated with you. It simply says you come through for us. Does that mean--
REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: But the President of the United States, Madam Attorney General--
JANET RENO: Does that mean--may I finish, sir? If you have specific and credible information that the President of the United States or anyone else covered by the statute may have violated federal law, then let me pursue that. But I can't pursue it based on just the statement that you have provided.
KWAME HOLMAN: In contrast to that exchange carefully worded questions from Florida Republican Bill McCollum did elicit some information relating to the campaign fund-raising investigation.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: Have you come to a determination in your mind, or has the department whether or not it would be a criminal violation of this statute for a solicitation of the campaign contribution to take place in an official working space of the White House, such as the Oval Office or some other clearly non-residential part of the White House if such a solicitation did take place?
JANET RENO: If it were in an official part of the White House, my understanding is that it would represent a violation. What is an official or public site of the White House is again--it may be fact specific.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I understand. Does the task force that you've appointed to look into these campaign finance law violations (a) have an investigative strategy and (b) does that investigative strategy, if there is one, include looking into questions of conspiracies to violate federal election laws, such as the one I just described?
JANET RENO: With respect to strategies, the task force early on developed a strategy. We now have additional management in place, and they are in the process, and they have made--I think they have a substantial strategy in place, but they are fine tuning the strategy. And one of the keys of both has been to make sure that we pursue every allegation. If an allegation develops a conspiracy, that we focus on the people responsible for the conspiracy; but that we pursue every lead that will take us, every fact that will take us to any wrongdoing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the hearing the attorney general said she sympathized with members' frustration with their answers but re-emphasized, like every prosecutor, she must balance her desire to be open against the legal requirement that she run a confidential investigation.
JIM LEHRER: Now some insight into the independent counsel law which was at the heart of today's hearing. It comes from NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor of Legal Times and the American Lawyer. Stuart, welcome.
STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: Nice to be here.
JIM LEHRER: First, remind us how the independent counsel law came into being.
The origins of the independent counsel law.
STUART TAYLOR: It grew out of the Watergate scandal and in particular out of the firing by President Nixon of Archibald Cox in 1973. Cox had been appointed independent counsel by the attorney general, Elliot Richardson; he had been appointed special prosecutor. But he served at the pleasure of the President and when he was getting too close, Nixon fired him, precipitating a constitutional firestorm.
After the dust of Watergate cleared, in the Ethics of Government Act in 1978, quite a while after it cleared, the independent counsel provisions were included--then they were called the special prosecutor provisions--as a way of guaranteeing that in some future investigation of high level wrongdoing the President couldn't get rid of somebody who was on his trail or on his close associate's trail simply by firing him.
JIM LEHRER: And they set up a procedure where judges do the--do the--make the decision, the final decision about whether or not there will be an independent counsel, right? How does the process work?
STUART TAYLOR: It's a complex series of steps. The essence of it is that if the Justice Department either comes across or receives an allegation of criminality against a high level enough official to be covered by the law--and the law enumerates who's covered--certainly the President and the Vice President and cabinet secretaries, for example, are covered, an allegation of criminality that can't be ruled out on some plausible ground at the threshold, then the attorney general is required by law to go to a special three-judge court of federal appellate judges and ask that court to appoint an independent counsel. The court chooses the independent counsel. The attorney general doesn't. But the court has no choice but to do it. It's an automatic procedure.
JIM LEHRER: The court can't say no, no thanks.
STUART TAYLOR: The court can't say, no, we don't think we ought to do it. But they have complete discretion to decide who they're going to choose, and also the President can't just fire the person. He can only be fired--he or she--once chosen, an independent counsel can only be fired for cause, the statute says, and subject to judicial review.
JIM LEHRER: Now, can the--is the attorney general the only one who can trigger this process to the--get it to the three judges to make that decision?
STUART TAYLOR: Yes, she is under the statute. Now, of course, the President could order her to do it because he can order her to do anything. He can fire her if he wants to. But the statute assigns the power to the attorney general, and it's a mandatory legal duty if there's allegations against a covered official; however, it's not enforceable in court. You can't--nobody can sue the attorney general, go to the judge and say make her appoint an independent counsel. It's a mandatory duty that's not enforceable. And since the law is rather vague as to when it's triggered, you always have arguments when there's a Democratic Congress and a Republican president or vice versa, as we have now, there are always big fights over whether an independent counsel should be appointed or not.
JIM LEHRER: Now, in addition to the possibility of a crime or the probability of a crime may have been committed, conflict of interest on part of the attorney general, the Justice Department, is also a legitimate reason for going, right, for an independent counsel?
STUART TAYLOR: Right. Yes. And, for example, that was the basis on which the Whitewater independent counsel was originally appointed. First, it was a man named Bob Fisk. Now it's Kenneth Starr. But if the allegations fall short, for example, of specific and credible evidence of a possible crime by an official covered by the act but the attorney general finds that she has a conflict of interest in pursuing it, she has the option--she's not required but she has the option of asking the court on that ground to appoint an independent counsel.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, thanks, Stuart.