December 5, 1997
This week, 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. Now, Jim Lehrer discusses the decision and its implications with our regular commentators, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 3, 1997:
A historical look at the President - Attorney General relationship.
December 2, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno does not seek an independent counsel.
October 14, 1997:
Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she was extending the investigation into fund-raising calls made by President Clinton.
Browse the Shields & Gigot index.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the campaign finance investigation.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee homepage.
The U.S. Department of Justice homepage.
JIM LEHRER: Now, some political analysis by syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.
Mark, the big news of the week, Attorney General Renoís decision on Tuesday not to seek independent counsel to pursue fund-raising calls by President Clinton and Vice President Gore. How does it look to you three days later, after the decision?
Janet Reno's decision: no big surprise.
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: After the decision, no big surprise, Jim. I think it was advertised, delivered as advertised. And I donít think the political fallout is as clear as some people wanted at the outset. The Republicans seemed to declaim and were upset about and went quite public with it. Now, theyíll have Attorney General Reno and FBI Director Freeh up at the Burton Committee next Tuesday there to explain their decisions, which they wonít do. December in Washington is a very slow time. And we like hearings. There arenít many hearings. And theyíll both say theyíll do the job.
JIM LEHRER: Thatíll be it?
MARK SHIELDS: Thatíll be it.
JIM LEHRER: That will be it, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I--contrary to Mark, I donít think the Republicans reacted strongly--all that strongly at all. What they did, I mean, I thought the New York Times was a lot more angry with Janet Reno than the Republicans were. And--
JIM LEHRER: Whatís your reading of that? Why did they respond? If youíre right in your theory, why did they respond so meekly?
A meek response from Republicans?
PAUL GIGOT: I really donít understand it. I mean, some would explain why all the press--you know, they donít want to be meanies and theyíll say itís too tough, and other people say, well, Janet Reno--we donít want to pick on her. I really donít understand it because if you donít have... two ways to hold an executive account, one is legally, and Janet Reno I think has taken that off the table, at least for the President and Vice President. Maybe some other people will be investigated, but I doubt that they will in the end. The other way is politically, and that means that youíve got to say--youíve got to fight this out at the political realm where you begin to find out what you can in Congress, and you investigate the Justice Department. Theyíre not going to interview John Huang one year after he became the centerpiece of this whole thing; that the public integrity section admits they havenít even interviewed him yet. So itís a puzzle to me, and if they donít, I think whatís going to happen is thereís a real danger for Republicans that the Democrats could turn the tables here next year, change the subject to campaign finance reform, and the Republicans could find themselves in 1998 getting blamed because President Clinton broke the campaign laws in 1996.
JIM LEHRER: Wow.
MARK SHIELDS: First of all, I think thatís a big leap; they broke the laws. I mean, I think--we get lawbreaking--I think Iíve made the case before that there should be an independent counsel. I believe that--I believe that the law was broken several places by several different parties. But letís get one thing straight. Do the Republicans overreact? Sure, they overreact. I counted three Republicans, elected office holders, as well as several conservative penmen on the Republican side, accusing Janet Reno of acting like John Mitchell and the Nixon Justice Department. Letís get a couple of things straight here. John Mitchell--John Mitchell was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to the FBI. Now, we all do this stuff by simile and metaphor and allegorical, and everything else. John Mitchell stands alone. He took LaRue and Marty and two of his prized assistants with him convicted of it. So I mean Janet Reno is not that. She is not a puppet of the Clinton White House. She could be wrong in this, but sheís no John Mitchell.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, sheís no John Mitchell, thatís true. She hasnít been thrown into jail yet, but I think you can begin to make--
MARK SHIELDS: Yet?
"... you do have a politicized Justice Department, which isnít doing the peopleís business of making politicians accountable."
PAUL GIGOT: Excuse me. You canít--you can begin, if youíre a Republican, I think, to make the case that sheís not independent; that this Justice Department has not done a capable job of this investigation; you do have a politicized Justice Department, which isnít doing the peopleís business of making politicians accountable.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Speaking of accountable, what about Louis Freeh the director of the FBI, whatís your reading of that situation now. Just to refresh everybodyís memory he felt that Janet Reno should have appointed an independent counsel, wrote a memo to that effect to her, and now, of course, they want this thing to come out next Tuesday. But both Freeh and Reno have said, you ainít readiní this thing. But anyhow, whatís your reading of the Freeh thing?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, heís going to be brought up and asked to explain the differences. Mark is probably right about what heíll say but the question is, do the Republicans somehow get this memo, which would explain a lot? The Justice Department looks like itís not going to release it, so itíll have to find some other ways. Maybe they can subpoena it--maybe parts of it if they include grand jury evidence.
JIM LEHRER: Has it been leaked to the press? Has--
PAUL GIGOT: The summary has.
JIM LEHRER: The summary, but not the memo, itself?
PAUL GIGOT: Not the memo, itself. I think the difference between the director of the FBI and the attorney general does give the Republicans an opening to say--a political opening to drive a wedge and say, well, what is the real story here and at least make some political hay with it, and they ought to.
FBI Director Louis Freeh: from "bum" to "pinup boy."
MARK SHIELDS: Louis Freeh is the director of the FBI. Six months ago Republicans--I mean, the majority of Republicans were calling for his scalp on Capitol Hill. You name the offense--whether it was Howard Shapiro, his counsel at the FBI, whether it was--whether it was the files, whether it was the FBI being--their laboratory not being well run--he was a bum. Now, heís the pinup boy because he disagreed with Janet Reno. And Louis Freeh is a pro; heís a professional. Louis Freeh is not going to go into a committee. If heís going to leave, heís going to leave on his own terms. Heís going to leave with his own dignity and his own self-respect, and heís not going to go in there and spill the beans before a congressional committee. Heís going to say what he has said; Iíve made a recommendation, the final decision is the attorney generalís. Do I think that Janet Reno made the right decision based upon what theyíre looking at, the phone calls? Yes. Why were they looking at the phone calls? They were looking at the phone calls for a very simple reason. The Republicans made a big thing out of the phone calls. They said these phone calls have to be investigated. Is there grounds for independent counsel? Yes, but itís probably on subject matter, rather than individual activity. Janet Reno in the first Clinton term as attorney general went to the Hill and asked to expand the independent counsel power to include subject matter. If it were subject matter and she was turned down, there would be an independent counsel today.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Another subject. Dick Gephardtís speech, the House Minority Leader took some obvious hits at the President at Harvard. Old Democrats versus new, what versus what?
PAUL GIGOT: A little bit of that. I was--I thought the most fascinating thing about this speech, apart from the needles at Vice President Gore and the President--was the criticism--
JIM LEHRER: There were some--thereís no point in repeating them, but there were some obvious needles at both the Vice President and the President.
Dick Gephardt's speech: "obvious needles at both the Vice President and the President."
PAUL GIGOT: There sure were. But there was a substantive critique as well, and I think this is the most meaningful part of it, which was--got to the issue of scope. What a lot of Democrats--what frustrates a lot of Democrats about the Clinton administration is that while itís been successful in staying in office, it doesnít really propose a lot of things that get them excited. Itís--if you have an eight year presidency and youíre the Social Democratic Party and your agenda--and youíre proposing things like 48-hour hospital stays and family leave to take your job to the vet, that does not echo of the Social Security law or of Medicare. And you see a lot of this criticism is just too small. Itís what Mark once said was the agenda--was the equivalent of valet parking, a pretty good line.
MARK SHIELDS: Thanks.
PAUL GIGOT: Dick Gephardt wants them to--wants the Democrats to start thinking bigger, both in terms of 1998 to get the vote out for the congressional election, and then beyond looking to 2000, letís stand for something. Letís move the agenda and the country in our direction.
JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it was about 1998.
JIM LEHRER: Ď98, not 2000?
MARK SHIELDS: Dick Gephardt, quite frankly, is not a kamikaze pilot. Heís not on a suicide mission. Heís a very practical, very successful politician. Heís not going to take on a President of his own party whoís at 65 percent approval with the public and 91 percent approval with Democrats, with Democrats in the country. I mean, what he was laying down, in my judgment, was we have to have going into Ď98 differences. As one fellow Missourian of his once said, Harry Truman, "The country doesnít need two Republican Parties." And I think more than the President he was taking on what Iíd call a leadership council, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the Dick Morrisí centrist approach. In both our political parties, Jim, thereís sort of a tradition. Paul has even acknowledged this, the Republican Party. The militant partisans in one party always want the other party to nominate somebody in the middle. Thatís why liberal Democrats always thought the Republicans ought to nominate Nelson Rockefeller or Howard Baker or John Anderson. The militant partisans of the party donít want those people, but the militant partisans of the other party do. Same thing with the Republicans--said Democrats ought to nominate Sam Nunn for President or Chuck Robb or Scoop Jackson of Washington. The reality is that Dick Gephardt is trying to say to the Democratic Party for us to win in Ď98, to have a shot at winning back the House, weíve got to draw differences, and I think probably the patientís bill of rights, taking on HMOís and that is where itís going to begin.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Weíre going to end right here. Thank you both.