MS. RENO VS. CONGRESS
October 15, 1997
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
A RealAudio version of our regional commentators' discussion.
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
JIM LEHRER: Now how all of this looks to our regional commentators: Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; and Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman. Lee, how do you think the attorney general did before the House committee today?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Jim, I thought she did very well. I thought she held her own. I like her imperturbability, and I think that she should be very pleased with her performance today. You know, I find support for her in this part of the country which surprised me actually because Dallas tends to be very Republican. Of course, there are those who stay she's weak administratively, but they've said that for a number of months, if not years, but I found in talking to people about her the last two or three days I have found that especially young professional and businessmen speak well of her. They say that she's a decent public servant in a very difficult circumstance. So I don't think her reputation is suffering from this campaign funds crisis.
JIM LEHRER: You think so, Cynthia, her reputation is suffering?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: I think the credibility of the Justice Department, as well as the credibility of the White House, is at issue here, Jim. And I think that if Ms. Reno would take off her blinders, she would, in fact, see that the larger interest of the country would be served if she appointed or asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Having said that, let me say if I had to award points today just on the basis of sincerity and earnestness, the points would certainly go to her. She was able to mount a credible defense on the basis of some very narrow technical interpretations of the law. On the other side, it is very clear that the Republicans only have their partisan interest at heart here. And so next to their inquiries Janet Reno certainly appears to be a very credible figure.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, where would you score the points?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, I think there's always danger in instant analysis. I think the attorney general did a pretty good job in the setting of the hearings. I also think that Congressman Barr, Congressman Lamar Smith, among others, also McCollum, I think they gained important points of information and concessions about her thought process, if you will. They drew her out at least to the extent of her saying that it's not any particular one incident but perhaps a pattern of activities that they're looking at. We had an editorial the other day where we proclaimed that she was either a fool or a patsy or both. I think now, after listening to her and trying to grant her the benefit of the doubt, that it's possible she's been had. I think this information was kept from her. There's indications at least that she didn't know about the existence of these tapes. And I'll take that at face value for now.
JIM LEHRER: You feel she's been had by her employer, the President of the United States, and the White House?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Absolutely. I think that there's a chance that now we will get the kind of more thorough investigation that's more than just phone calls and relying on information that's given you voluntarily but digging a little deeper.
JIM LEHRER: Bob Kittle, Newt Gingrich also used that word "fool" to describe Janet Reno recently. How does she look to you based on her performance today and also the other issues raised?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think she looked--she gave a very credible performance today. But, that said, I think from eyes at least she looks a little bit naive about the total question that has to be explored here. And what she has an obligation to do is to not just examine the kind of lawyerly questions that were raised today about this issue but to examine the broader situation. And the broader situation clearly shows that she has a fundamental and inescapable conflict of interest because she is investigating her own boss in this matter. And that means that no matter what she concludes, whether she concludes that a special prosecutor is needed or if she concludes that no special prosecutor is needed, her investigation will lack credibility with a large segment of the American public.
And her credibility problem there is compounded by the fact that Justice Department's probe has not been very steady in this, and, in fact, twice in the past, she has assured us that there was no credible evidence of wrongdoing, only then to be upstaged by news reports first by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, who reported on the diversion of soft money into hard money accounts, which was apparent from the Federal Election Commission, the public records that were filed, the Justice Department had not bothered to look into, and then secondly on the issue of the videotapes, as Pat mentioned. She did not know the videotapes were available, and she publicly declared that there was no evidence that the President had engaged in any wrongdoing when she, in fact, had not even examined the videotapes because she did not know they existed because the White House did not tell her about them.
JIM LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, where do you come down on the credibility question and concerning Janet Reno?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I don't know about her credibility, Jim. I think that--
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe her? Did you believe her when you listen to her talk to the members of the House today?
MIKE BARNICLE: I believe that the whole thing is embarrassing, to tell you the truth. I think that you have a bunch of people sitting around in Washington, talking about a law, whether it was violated, a law that was written in the 1800's, back when we communicated by Pony Express, before the existence of telephones. And now we're getting into whether or not the a used a phone in his office, as opposed to a phone in his living room. We're getting into, you know, whether he violated the Area Code Act. I don't know. But the larger question remains unresolved. What happens? Who benefits when large amounts of money are poured into campaigns? That's not what was spoken about today. What was spoken about today was a ridiculous law that, you know, no one's ever going to be prosecuted on. It's a ridiculous waste of public time and money and taxpayer money to be engaged in the charade.
JIM LEHRER: Lee, what about this whole process of bringing the attorney general before a House committee like this in a very dramatic way and asking her the kinds of questions and confronting her the way she was, is that checks and balances working the way it should?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, yes, Jim. I guess you do have to say it's checks and balances. I thought that some of the members of Congress went a little overboard today and were a little dramatic in their questioning of her, and I think that those of who call for her resignation are indulging in political hyperbole. But, you know, Mike has a point about this 1883 law that pertains to raising money on federal property. It needs to be clarified by the Congress. It's perfectly obvious that Washington has become a great big development office. There's no reason to suppose that the occupants of the White House are going to abstain from this. Well, what are the rules? Can they use the telephones in the White House or not? Can they use the facilities of the White House to entertain potential donors and past donors or not? I think the Congress needs to spell this out quite plainly and not wait for the courts to spell it out and sort it out.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Stuart, Stuart, this law is as ambiguous as everybody says it is, right? It has not been challenged in court. There isn't a clean decision on it, is there?
STUART TAYLOR: Well, it's not that ambiguous on its face if you just read it. I suppose the ambiguous word would be the word "in." If it's illegal to do something in a federal office, does that mean it's illegal to make a phone call from the federal office eliciting money in this case? But what's ambiguous is the application of the law, whether it should be read for everything it's worth literally, whether it should be interpreted in a common sense way, for example, as--which telephone call is made from can't really be the difference between criminality and non-criminality no matter what the thing says.
JIM LEHRER: You have two telephones on a desk. One of them is paid for by one--
STUART TAYLOR: They'd have to be in different rooms.
JIM LEHRER: Different rooms. Okay.
STUART TAYLOR: It's clear under the Justice Department's traditional interpretation that if the President called and solicited money from his bedroom in the White House, then that doesn't violate the law. If he did it from the Oval Office, there's an argument that it does violate the law.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, are the people of Atlanta following this story?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I don't think that they are, except those that have had--traditionally had very partisan interests in this matter. There are some--many conservatives in Georgia who have longed to see President Clinton convicted of something, and I think that they are following this with some interest. On the other side, there are his defenders here who think that the Republicans are just out to get him. And Mike Barnicle is right, I think, about this much. As long as we're concentrating on something as ludicrous as did the President use the phone in the right room in the White House, then I don't think that voters in Atlanta or anywhere else in the country think that matters. But the fact of the matter is I don't think either the Republicans or the Democrats want to focus on more important matters here, which are all of these huge amounts of money from special interests flowing into campaigns.
JIM LEHRER: Is that right? Do you agree with that, Pat, that the emphasis is on the wrong thing?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: No. I thought today was kind of productive. You know, Bob Bork, Jr., who was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report at the time that his father's hearings began a little over ten years ago described those hearings as hearings but not listening because of the lack of actual exchange; you know, sound bite questions from the Senators and then long, erudite answers from his father. Today I think I saw actual exchange. I watched a little bit over two hours of the hearings, and, again, I heard important things finally elicited, although I respect why the attorney general was reluctant to comment on some aspects.
JIM LEHRER: Bob Kittle, did you see something good just as a process going on today?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think it's good that we aired this question in public, although I think all of the posturing by members of the Judiciary Committee on both sides got a little bit tiresome. But I think the important thing here that we have to bear in mind is that it's not the phone calls that are the most important part of this investigation. What we really need a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of is whether money that was laundered into the President's re-election effort from abroad, from Asian contributors and conceivably from the Chinese government, was done in a way that was intended to subvert not only are laws but the election process. That's a very serious issue. And that's what a special prosecutor needs to get to the bottom of.
JIM LEHRER: Is that a serious issue, Mike?
MIKE BARNICLE: Jim, in the life and breath of this country what happened today is nothing. We're on the verge of going after a president for dialing for dollars when the real question, the real dilemma, the real problem that this country faces and everyone knows it is finding out who and what is for sale in Washington and what is the price tag.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all very much.