the clinton years

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interview: jane sherburne

photo of jane sherburne

As a White House Special Counsel from 1994 until 1996, she was responsible for damage control on Whitewater-related matters.

Interview conducted August, 2000 by Chris Bury

Your first stint at the White House was under Lloyd Cutler, right before you came back. Tell us a little bit about what you were doing your first time around.

Lloyd had gone over to be the temporary counsel to the president when Bernie Nussbaum resigned. And if you recall, Bernie resigned at a time when there were questions about the investigation of Vince Foster's suicide and contacts that the White House had had with the Treasury Department about the investigation that the Treasury was doing of the Whitewater matter.

Lloyd came in at a time when there was a perception that those issues had been mishandled by the White House, that they needed someone to come in who could restore some confidence, that there was a real grown-up in there who had things in hand and was going to get everything whipped into shape, and find out what went wrong and take care of it if something did go wrong.

He went in to conduct an internal investigation of the White House Treasury contacts issue, as well as the Vince Foster suicide and the aftermath of that, and I went with him. I have worked for Lloyd for many years, and I went with him to help him do that.

In that first period, our goal was to conduct an internal inquiry and then report both to the president and to Congress what we found and recommend any changes in policies, any disciplinary actions as a result of that.

That was our first encounter with the scandal environment in the Clinton years. This was in April of 1994.

How would you characterize the scandal management approach at that time?

When we first came in, it was being handled by people in the West Wing, and it absorbed very much the attention of the entire West Wing operation. There were various people involved--John Podesta, who was staff secretary at the time, was quite involved; Harold Ickes was involved; the press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, was involved at the time...all of the people who were also involved in the day-to-day White House operations were involved in the scandal management.

I picked up over the time that I worked with Starr's people a tremendous
hostility toward Hillary. If her name came up ... the venom with which they
spoke about her was just startling.It was a little chaotic in the beginning because Lloyd's role was to come in and try and manage it all within the counsel's office, all under his direction. And there is always a tension between political people and lawyers. Political people assume that lawyers have a tin ear, and they can't possibly understand what the public needs to hear about whatever is the issue of the day. Lawyers are worried that if anyone says anything, it can be held against them later or create problems in some sort of a legal environment...there's always difficulty in marrying those two.

There was, in those initial days, a tremendous amount of wariness and suspicion that the lawyers didn't know what they were doing, and the lawyers thought the political people were being too aggressive, and there was an effort, I think, made to integrate those teams in a way so that we could actually work together and accomplish a reasonable investigation that resulted in a report to Congress that would create some confidence by the American people that this issue had been looked at carefully and had been fully exhausted and dealt with by this inquiry.

Were you there for the great debate about whether to turn over the Whitewater material to the Washington Post? I know that that had been advocated by David Gergen and others. Were you there for that debate?

I came after that debate. We had similar debates many times about what to do with that material and whether it should be turned over. But that debate was after the time that I was there.

You talked about this tension between the political staff and the legal staff. The political staff argued, I assume, for more public disclosure, and the legal staff for less; is that accurate?

I'm not so sure it broke down on those lines. Lloyd Cutler has always been an advocate of full disclosure. Let's [have] full cooperation. We'll waive privileges. "Open kimono" is what he'd say...that it was more useful to provide information.

I think that some of the political people were quite wary of the press and quite concerned that any information that was put out there would be used against them; that the press would treat it unfairly; that the Clinton haters would grab hold of it and exploit it and use it irresponsibly. It didn't actually break down necessarily along the traditional lines.

In 1994, the Democrats lose both Houses of [Congress]. Gingrich comes in as Speaker, and there's a famous Gingrich quote which says, "Washington just can't imagine a world in which Republicans have subpoena power." You are then brought in again to come back to the White House Counsel's Office. Tell us about that and the new atmosphere with a Republican Congress.

It was very clear. Gingrich made it clear. I think there was a time when Al D'Amato had said that by the '96 election every kid over the age of six was going to know how to spell the word subpoena.

There was an environment that made it perfectly clear that the Republicans would use that power to try and defeat the president's reelection. And combined with an independent counsel, this was perceived to be something that was quite dangerous and needed to be managed carefully.

When I came back in, Leon Panetta had given the primary responsibility for managing these kinds of issues to Harold Ickes. And I worked with Harold on a plan for putting together a team that would essentially take the management of these issues out of the mainstream operations of the West Wing, so that the press spokesman, who was meeting with the press every day, would not be the Whitewater spokesman; so that the people who went to the Hill and dealt with the Congress on this were not the same people who were asking for various positions and support on the president's initiatives.

We tried to move it out of the mainstream White House and handle it as a discrete unit so that the primary work of the White House wouldn't bleed into the scandal work. And I think conceptually that was a terrific idea, and I think it worked quite well for a while. We did get to a point where, at the daily press briefings, the press was not asking McCurry about Whitewater. They were quite content to go and talk to Mark Fabiani to get their answers, who was the Whitewater press person.

It also worked, I think, quite effectively on the Hill. We had relationships on the Hill with people who developed confidence in us and the information we were giving them. And it wasn't tainted by anything else that was going on or any other initiative that the White House was trying to work with the Hill. And similarly, with the other work of the Counsel's Office, we weren't involved in that either.

I think it did succeed in keeping from distracting the people who really were responsible for developing domestic policy and seeing the president through that period after the midterm election, to keep their eye focused on the right issues.

When you were hired, you meet with the president, and there's a scene in Woodward's book where he puts his arm around you and talks to you. Can you tell us about that meeting, what it was the president said?

Once history takes proper account, there will be some account of how desperate
Clinton haters were to find something. I think history will show their effort
to diminish this president just cannot survive.Well, I think that encounter was something that was designed mostly to send a signal to others that I was part of the team. I had come in, everyone knew I was Harold's person. I had worked closely with Harold in the '94 period on those investigations. But...sometimes I've thought that in dealing with the external world to the White House was easier than dealing with the internal world.

It's very important to your own ability to get things done for other people to understand what kind of access and what kind of authority you actually have. And I think that that encounter was really more designed to demonstrate to others that this was a relationship that was important and that I would have some ability to execute my brief with a direct line to the president.

My direct line was to Harold. I occasionally dealt with the president, and that was usually with Harold and sometimes others. But it was still a demonstration by the president that--

It was a signal to others in the White House that you had some authority.

That's right, and it was in the presence of others. So, at least, that's how I understood it.

You went to see Mrs. Clinton, who had some early skepticism about your mission...or your plans.

I think she had skepticism about the ability to manage the risk that she understood the White House was confronting. And she also understood that she was the foil, that a lot of the attacks on the president would actually be directed against her. And she was very concerned that there be some kind of an operation in place that was dealing with that in a very smart way. She, too, was looking to Harold to make sure that he put that together. And Harold, in turn, was looking to me.

I'd encountered Hillary briefly in the course of the '94 investigation. But in '95, I had spent quite a bit of time working with Harold to put together this plan for how we would manage the so-called scandals on an ongoing basis, and then met with her to lay out the plan and tell her what kind of staffing we were considering, who we were considering hiring, who had been hired and what our goals were and how we expected to proceed.

She is a very smart woman, and she asked lots of good questions, and I had lots of good answers, and we just progressed through the meeting. And I think she was persuaded that there was an apparatus in place, that we had thought the issues through, and now we just had to see if it worked.

At the end of the day, I felt that the meeting had been sufficiently positive that we could go forward with this plan and at least have her support and confidence that it was the right way to start.

What were her reservations about?

I don't remember that she had reservations about it. One of the issues that was always a difficult one, I think, for me to deal with was how you develop the relationship with the outside counsel. The Whitewater issue, as you know, arose many, many years before Clinton was president. It was something that really came about in the context of their personal lives, not in an official capacity when he was president or she was first lady. The relationship with...the personal counsel, who was really primarily responsible for those issues that had developed in that pre-inaugural era, was something that I thought was important to understand and that we needed to develop the appropriate lines there.

That was a struggle throughout the whole period because those lines cannot be easily drawn when you're dealing with someone in their official capacity who is profoundly affected in that capacity by things that happened in his personal life prior to the time he was president.

It was a very difficult line to walk, and I have a recollection of describing that to her. But I don't recall a reservation. [The attitude was] let's move forward with this in place and see how it works

The way it's recounted in one book is that when you went to go see Mrs. Clinton for that meeting in her West Wing office, that, "Mrs. Clinton could barely contain her skepticism." Is that how you recall it?

No. No. I don't recall her being skeptical. She wanted to know what we were going to do. She asked the right questions...I wouldn't say she heaved a big sigh of relief and said, "Whew, you know, everything's under control." But we had something in place, and that if it worked on a going-forward basis, it would be great. But if it didn't, we'd have to see. She was not going to embrace the whole plan, until she saw whether it was working. And that was fair.

You worked for, you said, Harold Ickes, although technically you worked for Abner Mikva, the White House counsel, and there was apparently some dispute about who you really worked for. At one point Ickes defends you pretty vigorously. He also, at the same time, apparently tells Mikva, "Hands off. She works for me," or something like that.

That was a difficult arrangement. The understanding that I had with Harold when I went to work in the White House was that I would have some control over what it was we were doing. I felt that this was a very high-risk, for me professionally, undertaking, and that unless I could actually have the access, get access to the facts, the witnesses, the people, the documents, touch and feel it myself, make my own professional judgments, with my own staff that I had selected and was comfortable with, that I didn't want to do it.

I laid that out to Harold and said, "That's the terms. I want my own operation here." And that was the understanding that we had on a going-forward basis as I came to the White House, and I had thought, as Harold had, that that was the understanding that Abner Mikva had as well. As time went on, and the relationship with Mikva was one where I would keep him informed of things that were developing, and certainly he had terrific relationships with Congress and could be deployed very effectively to be helpful in some of these matters, [then] we would work together, but [it] was my operation.

As time went on, I think Ab became uncomfortable with that arrangement and resisted it. And that created some tensions, which have been described in various places.

April 22nd [1995], the Independent Counsel decides to depose the Clintons at the White House. How did that go? This is three days after the Oklahoma City bombing.

It was three days after. We had set up this interview. We had worked with the president to prepare him and worked with Hillary as well. And the depositions were set to go forward, and this terrible tragedy occurred, which had diverted the attention of the White House. That's where the president's attention should have been. That required some jockeying with the schedule and consultations with Starr's office about timing and what happens when.

In that particular interview-- in the president's study, which is in the residential part of the White House. It's a beautiful room. It's not large. It's got a big desk. It's got all of these artifacts in it that have got great historical significance. It's an interesting room.

The president went first. Starr came with several deputies, and they sat along one side of a table, and the lawyers for the president sat along the other side, and the president sat on the end. There was a court reporter. And Starr began by asking the first questions.

I was sitting toward the end of the table, and I was sitting close to Mark Toohey, who was a deputy independent counsel at the time. And all of the lawyers in the room immediately realized that Ken Starr had failed to swear in the president. That is a very common first-year lawyer kind of mistake. It's something that [you do] when you're nervous about a deposition...what you always say to a kid when you send him off to take their first deposition is, "Don't forget to swear in the witness."

I can see Mark scratching a little note that he passes down the table to Ken Starr, and Starr stops and says, "Oh, excuse me. I need to swear in the witness." It was an amusing moment, and it was an interesting observation just how experienced Starr was at this kind of a thing. I had heard from someone that that was his very first deposition that he had ever taken. He was not a prosecutor by training, and this very first word or words out of his mouth seemed to establish that.

The deposition proceeded. The president handled himself quite well, as he always does. He's the kind of witness who really wants to connect with his questioner. Anyone who's been around the president knows that he has a very engaging personal style, and he likes to connect in a very direct way with the people that he's dealing with, and he did that with Ken Starr [and] his deputies. The deposition proceeded without any particular [trouble]--it was not a tough series of questions, and no one ever got testy. There was never any argument. The lawyers weren't objecting. It was quite cordial.

So cordial, in fact, that afterwards the president apparently asked someone to show Starr the Lincoln Bedroom, and Mrs. Clinton issued sort of opposite directions. Do you know that story? Were you there?

I do know that story. Afterward, the president was talking to Starr and his...four or five lawyers there with him, and--he was showing them around the room and explaining what some of the different artifacts were. And they were talking some about the Oklahoma City bombing.

Then the president invited me to show this team where the Lincoln Bedroom was. I was actually myself quite anxious just to get on with it and get these people out of the room. I don't like to be discourteous to an opponent, but I typically don't need to show them my bedroom either. And so this was a little awkward, but it was something that I would have done after Hillary was deposed, and she was next.

After she had completed her deposition, I then dutifully took these folks on a very rapid tour of the Lincoln Bedroom and then got them out of the White House. Hillary did express some dismay. This was their home. This was an invasion in their home, and I understood completely. I wanted those folks out of their home as well. It was an interesting comparison of how the two of them approached those kinds of situations.

But Hillary wasn't happy about that.

As I said, she was dismayed, and she didn't understand why they couldn't just be ushered out promptly.

The second interview comes up July 22nd. Anything particular about that interview that marks it as different from the first one?

I'm trying to remember what the subject matter of that interview was. I know that with each of these interviews, there was always the question about when you disclose that it's taking place. If it gets leaked, what happens, how do you respond, as well as what does it say, and how do we prepare people for the fact that Starr has said that he wants to conduct several of these interviews.

Every time there was an interview like this, it stirred the pot. It made people think that the scandal issues were coming to a head, that Starr was about ready to do something or that he had found something that he needed to question the president about. So it was always important to try and help people understand that this was a process, that Starr couldn't question the president and the first lady about everything that he needed to talk to them about in one sitting, that there would be more, and that this was something that was completely expected. And those issues surfaced each time we had these depositions in the White House. In that first sitting with the Independent Counsel, you said things were pretty routine and went pretty well. Was there any noticeable difference between how things went for the president versus Mrs. Clinton? Did the prosecutor seem more interested in Mrs. Clinton? Did Mrs. Clinton handle it different than the president?

I don't think the prosecutors were any more interested, but there was a different tone to the depositions. The president is a very warm, engaging and outgoing person in almost any situation. And Hillary was an ideal client because she was very courteous and polite. She answered the questions, but there wasn't a lot of superfluous talk in the deposition, and it was perfectly cordial, and she left. Unlike the president, who stood around to chat, and talk about what was in the room.

I think the attitude on the part of the prosecutors was perhaps somewhat more aggressive with her. Certainly, I picked up over the course of the time that I worked with Starr's people a tremendous hostility toward Hillary. I could be dealing with [Starr's] people on a perfectly benign subject [like], "When are you going to get us the documents?" and if her name came up, there would be a whole change in the conversation, and the venom with which they spoke about her was just startling. I wouldn't say that that came through in that particular deposition, the venom, but there was a wariness here. She knew these people were not allies and that they were scouring every inch of her life for something to harm her with. And so she answered their questions, she went through it, but it was not friendly.

In August 1995, Joe Klein, who had written very approvingly of the Clintons early in the campaign, came out with a column which called the Clintons the "Tom and Daisy Buchanan" of their generation; that they had sort of left this trail littered with debris, including a lot of people who had gone to bat for them and suffered enormous legal bills and so on. What was Mrs. Clinton's reaction to that column? What did she convey to you?

Well, I know when I read that column I fervently hoped that she wouldn't read it because I knew it would be painful to her, and I also knew that it was unfair. I had worked with her enough to have seen how deeply troubled she was about what people close to her were being put through in these investigations. And to have her analogized to a Daisy Buchanan was really quite hurtful and quite unfair.

There came a time when she and I did talk about that column, and it was hurtful to her. She didn't want to be perceived that way because she wasn't that way, she didn't feel that way. She cared deeply about Maggie Williams. She loves Maggie. And Maggie would do anything for her. And for someone to think that she was being callous and disregarding what this was doing to Maggie...it wasn't the case, and it wasn't fair to present that perception of her, and it hurt her.

Later on that summer, there is a debate about whether or not Mrs. Clinton herself should be a witness before Congress. What was that debate like, and where did you stand on it?

...[Senator Al] D'Amato hoped the hearings were building. But, in fact, the hearings were a dud. They weren't establishing what he wanted to establish. They weren't the sensation that he hoped they would be. And so the only card he had left was Hillary. He didn't dare subpoena her. And so the question was, would she make herself available and go up and say, "All right. Here I am. I'll tell you anything you want to know," and put herself forward in that way.

I thought it was a tough call, actually. She's a terrific witness. She's very compelling. She would have, I thought, been quite effective. But it would have been completely sensational. It would have been a total diversion from the president's agenda, and I thought, ultimately, unnecessary because I didn't think D'Amato would pull that subpoena trigger. And if he didn't have the guts to do that, I didn't think she should go up there.

We played this game of chicken for a while with D'Amato--he would send a letter saying, "We would welcome her if she would like to come." She'd send a letter or we would send a letter from the White House saying, "If you want to ask her to come, go ahead and ask her." It was this game of chicken that we played. Ultimately he never did pull the trigger, and she didn't go. I think that was the right judgment, ultimately.

In December, there is an event which is tied to some other events. It starts with this David Watkins' memo that's discovered about the Travel Office. Why did that cause such consternation at the White House when it was discovered that Watkins had, in fact, written this memo where he sort of blames Mrs. Clinton for pulling the strings?

The Watkins memo, which at the time seemed, when we found it, as if the sky was falling, was a problem for a couple of reasons. One, the travel office matter, was being investigated, and investigations of investigations were being undertaken, but it was a big nothing. There was no clear connection, although there were allegations, to Hillary really having been involved directly in any of the decisions that were made with the firing of the travel office employees.

Watkins' memo...was sort of a soul-cleansing memo. He was frustrated with the way this had happened in the White House. He felt like he'd taken the fall for decisions that he didn't make by himself. And he wrote in the memo that he understood from another White House staffer that Hillary was the one who had ordered the firings. Now, he never said that she told him that. He doesn't say that, and she doesn't say that. But the memo was sufficiently relevant to all of the inquiries that had been taking place and was sufficiently inflammatory about her role that we knew it would be significant.

The fact that it was discovered late [was significant]...these were documents that had been subpoenaed before, there had been many investigations, and we knew it would have some key significance to any of these investigations, and that the Republicans were going to use it...[they'd say] we'd been hiding this, [and] why hadn't we produced it sooner? I always wondered, [about] those arguments...because why would we produce it in December or January all of a sudden if we were going to hide it? Why wouldn't we have hidden it permanently? Those arguments just rang so hollow to me. But we did produce it, and it was the source of a tremendous amount of controversy.

How was it produced in the first place? Where had it been?

Let me start by saying it was produced as the result of our great diligence in trying to respond to subpoenas. We had not looked at all of the archive files.

We discovered fairly late in the process that some files were archived with the White House Records Office and some were archived with the Federal Records Center, and that records at the Federal Record Center hadn't been reviewed, and that, in fact, Patsy Thomasson, who worked in the White House at the time and had been involved in the travel office matter, had shipped some documents to the Federal Records Center. We thought we better go and look at them.

We retrieved those documents, and when going through them, discovered this memo that she had her in her files. Apparently, David Watkins had given her a copy to review, and she had kept it. We found it, and we produced it. We produced it to Congressman Clinger, who was chairman of the Government Reform Committee in the House at the time and conducting an investigation on the travel office. Later, I think the next day, [we] produced it to Ken Starr, who had also called for travel office documents and subpoenas.

At this time, did Starr give you trouble about this document appearing late or seeming to appear late or was it later that Starr starts getting testy about that?

We produced it to Clinger on January 3rd. One of the lawyers who had worked for me had said to me either earlier in the day or the day before, "Remember, we've got to get this to Ken Starr."

We had gotten these documents up to the Hill, had managed this whole thing. It had been a crazy, chaotic day. It also happened to be my birthday, and my children, who were relatively young at the time, had worked to prepare a dinner for me at home. It was 9 o'clock at night; you know, it was bedtime, a school [night]. I raced out the door to get home for their dinner. And about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning I woke up and realized that we hadn't sent the document to Starr at the same time we sent it to Clinger.

I called one of the lawyers who worked for me [and] she met me at the White House early in the morning. We got the document, sent it over to Starr, and Starr issued a press release complaining that we had withheld this document from him when we had produced it to the Hill and that we were being intransigent and started throwing around allegations about our failure to cooperate and that this was an intolerable way to deal with the prosecutor.

You called one of Starr's deputies and let him have it.

I did. I did. Well, I had a good relationship with this guy, John Bates. We actually worked through a lot of the subpoena issues pretty well. And as Starr's people go, he was a professional and someone I could deal with pretty easily. I called him and said, "What kind of nonsense is this?"

He has five kids, and I knew that he would appreciate my story, and you know we're all human. And working in a job like that in the White House doesn't permit you to be human. You can't have to race out home for your kid's dinner that they prepared for your birthday. That's not an excuse. And, you know, it ought to be. But in that environment, it just isn't, and you shouldn't take the job if you can't deal with it.

The trouble is for the White House on the next day, January 4th--

Boy, that was a bad month. On January 4th, we learned that the billing records were in the White House--[compared to that] the Watkins memo looked manageable.

The billing records were records of the work that Hillary had done for Madison Guaranty in 1985.

When she was with the Rose Law Firm.

When she was with the Rose Law Firm, that's right. And they had been the subject of some speculation and questioning in the course of Ken Starr's examination, in the course of the Treasury review of the Whitewater issue and the course of the Pillsbury Madison study that was commissioned by Treasury on the Whitewater matter, in the course of D'Amato's hearings, Leach's hearings. All of those entities investigating Whitewater had asked, at one time or another, "Well, where are Mrs. Clinton's billing records?" And no one could find them.

So this day in January I get a phone call from David Kendall, who was a personal counsel to the Clintons, who said, "We have to go over to the East Wing, where Caroline Huber's office is. She says she's found something that we need to take a look at."

So David came by, and we walked over there to Caroline's office. Caroline was the personal secretary or personal assistant to the Clintons. She had worked with them in the governor's mansion in Arkansas and had come with them to the White House, and she organized and managed a lot of their personal papers, prepared things for archiving and had a role like that. She also handled some correspondence.

She had an office in the East Wing. She also had had an office in the residence on the third floor, in what people called the Book Room. And she reported to us that she had found these records in the Book Room one day when she was cleaning up.

You know this is going to be a problem.

I saw these documents, she handed them to me, I saw them, I saw Vince Foster's handwriting all over them, which by now I recognized, and just realized immediately that this was going to be a problem. You could see the conspiracy theorists going. I saw the next 6 months of my life spin out in front of me and knew what the allegations would be. There was always some sense that something was removed from Vince Foster's office after his suicide. I knew that there would be allegations that this must have been it. It was going to be a problem.

In fact, it turned out to be a big nothing. But at the time looking at these records, you couldn't tell immediately what they showed. It was something that I remember going out in the hallway with David and another lawyer, Caroline's lawyer--nobody ever did anything without their lawyer--and said, from this moment forward, we have to make completely sure that we are confident in all of the judgments we are taking here because we're all going to be questioned. Every minute from this moment forward on how we handle this is going to be second-guessed. So let's be careful. Let's think coolly about this.

And I was absolutely right. We all testified in the grand jury. David and I testified before D'Amato, and it was true that every decision we made going forward on how to deal with those records was absolutely questioned and second-guessed.

The next day you go to see the president about these records and how the information ought to be released.

Harold and I went. And this was after we had had an opportunity to look through them and figure out whether there was anything in them that was inconsistent with anything that had been said. Hillary had been questioned about her work, but she had been questioned 15 years, probably, after the work had been done...in fact, the records were completely consistent with what her recollection had been. And we had that information by the time we were able to tell the president. When we told the president, we were also able to explain that and then talk about the significance of these records and how we anticipated they would be used.

What was his concern?

Well, it's the usual frustration. When you look at these records and you know that they essentially exonerate, but that they are still going to be somehow twisted and used against you, it's frustrating. You know, this is a good thing that the records are found. This is a useful thing because they corroborate what she said. How can this be a problem? The answer is they were just found. They were under subpoena for years. This was we're going to look like we were hiding these.

But it's hard for a rational person to understand why people would think you would hide something that was actually helpful to you. So explaining that, and it's not as if he didn't understand completely the political reality here, but there's still the frustration because the logic of it is so compelling, and logic doesn't control.

For the Independent Counsel and some of those on the Hill, this is sort of a one-two punch, though; there's the Watkins memo, which comes up late, in their eyes, then the billing records which had been under subpoena for a long time. And the Independent Counsel takes this very seriously.

Oh, they were in heaven. The Hill hearings were completely anemic before the Watkins memo and the billing records, and this breathed new life into D'Amato's efforts and it certainly gave the independent counsel a lot to work with as well.

The Independent Counsel decides that he's going to now subpoena Mrs. Clinton. Did you try to negotiate with them to avoid that?

Well, as I said, there was this sequence of questioning that they had said that they were going to do. There was every expectation that the next installment of the sequence would be at a time that was in a similar context, as the earlier ones. We had every expectation that she would be deposed in the White House with the president at the moment that they thought they needed the next segment of questioning.

With the billing records, they did something quite extraordinary. They subpoenaed her to come down and testify before the grand jury and actually leave the White House and do it in a very public kind of way, not discrete and not befitting of the office and totally sensationalizing the significance of these billing records.

It was something that concerned us. There were a number of us who did go and meet with Ken Starr...[to] try and persuade them that this was wholly unnecessary, it was just a political stunt and couldn't be justified. It was a very tough meeting.

And even Sam Dash, a prominent Democrat, who was serving as ethics advisor, recommended to Starr, and I assume in that meeting even argued, that it wouldn't be such a big deal for the first lady to testify before the grand jury.

Well, indeed, we saw how untrue that was. It was a complete circus. The place was mobbed. It was the focus of a tremendous amount of attention, and it was exactly what I believe they wanted it to be, which was focusing a lot of attention, trying to attach great significance to these billing records, which were completely helpful to Mrs. Clinton. She didn't know how they got into the White House, and if she had had them earlier, she certainly would have produced them because they were useful.

Starr recognized that it was a moment to demonize her and that people wouldn't understand the nuances, they wouldn't understand the details of 22 hours of billing in 1985 were confirmed on these records.

They would see the picture.

They would see the picture and that's what he wanted, and that's what he got.

Was that humiliating for Mrs. Clinton to have to do that?

I don't think so. I think that, once we recognized that this is what he was going to insist that she do, she just did it, and she did it with all of the grace and style that she has. She faced it squarely. She went in there...answered the questions, and told the truth, and came back out, met the press, said, "Here I am. Yes, I did it. I answered the questions, and I'm going home because I'm tired."

She couldn't be humiliated by it. It was too obviously a political ploy to actually be humiliated.

Can you characterize what Mrs. Clinton's concerns were?

January of 1996, this was the month that she had planned to go on her book tour, releasing her wonderful book, It Takes a Village. And she was excited about that. It was something she had put a lot of energy into, and she had really been looking forward to it. And suddenly there was this complete total absorbing distraction of the billing records, the grand jury subpoena, the Watkins memo, all of these things were developing all at the time that she was getting ready to go on her book tour.

She wanted to talk about kids, and all anybody else wanted to talk about was the billing records--where had they been, why weren't they found sooner. And it was enormously disheartening to her because she saw this book, at the time, as a culmination of an interest of hers that she's had throughout her professional life, and it was being completely destroyed by these politically-motivated investigations, and it was enormously frustrating and disheartening to her.

Mrs. Clinton is on the book tour. At the same time, back in the White House, you're dealing with this subpoena. How did that go, that tension between the face Mrs. Clinton had to show the public and what was really going on back at the White House? How much did the subpoena take up her concern?

She was on the road, so she wasn't there to be confronting it, although she was confronted with it wherever she went. Consistent with the way I approach my job, I thought the less contact I had with the principals, the better job I was doing. The less they were diverted from the book tour or from whatever else was on the agenda, the better off we were managing the problem. And so we tried very hard to let her do the book tour, but to keep her informed along the way of any new developments and anything that she might be asked because she was putting herself out there. She was being interviewed.

At one point on the book tour, she gave an interview to Diane Rehm, on the "Diane Rehm Show." In the course of that interview, she was hoping to talk about her book and was asked questions about the billing records. And Diane Rehm asked her a question [like], "why didn't you just get all of the documents out there when this issue first came up," and Hillary had said, at that point, something like, "Well, we did. We went up and showed the New York Times everything."

In fact, it turned out that that wasn't the case, and the New York Times was going to write a story the next day saying that she had misrepresented that fact in her interview with Diane Rehm, and they were going to feature it...

It would have come at an incredibly [bad] time for the White House.

It would have come at a very bad time...[it] also happened on the same day that the subpoena to testify before the grand jury arrived. It was a very bad day...[we had] to try and understand what happened with the New York Times, what documents were given, who managed that process, who actually had the answer, so we could correct the story and get her to acknowledge that perhaps she hadn't been fully informed about what was actually provided and not provided.

And, indeed, we learned that the people who had managed that process hadn't given all of the documents. And somewhere along the way, there had been a change in the plan, and Hillary had not been aware of it. So she had been operating under this misimpression, which then she repeated publicly on the "Diane Rehm Show. " So it was necessary then to get her in a position where she would say publicly that she had been mistaken when she said that on the "Diane Rehm Show,"and then get that to the New York Times and see if that wouldn't affect the way they handled this story.

It worked, right?

It worked. It was a very hard day because it came in the midst of receiving the subpoena, which created a whole host of other issues. That wasn't public yet, and it was a bombshell, that the Independent counsel was demanding, was hauling the first lady down to the grand jury...[it] was stunning that he would have the audacity to do that and was going to require careful handling, and we didn't know how quickly public knowledge of that would come about.

Was this a low point for her?

I would say the entire month. That, I know, was a bad day. It was a bad day for her. It was enormously frustrating because it was clear that she was going to have to go through the rest of this book tour and just accept the fact that she was going to have to answer these questions, and it wasn't going to be what she had hoped.

You accompanied Mrs. Clinton to the grand jury. What do you recall about that day?

I remember decisions about whether she would go in through the garage and get snuck up through the back elevators and so forth, and deciding that that was the wrong way to do this; that she was going to get out in front of the courthouse and walk up there and deal with the press and not look like she was sneaking in anywhere. She didn't have anything to hide, and that she was just going to go and handle it and answer questions.

We got to the courthouse and got up to the grand jury room, and there's the grand jury room, and then on a hallway alongside of the room there were witness rooms. ...

We were in a witness room for a little while waiting for the grand jurors to get ready to convene and got told that it was time. I remember standing in a doorway of one of these witness rooms with her and watching the grand jurors file by, and then the prosecutors started going by, and it was one, two, three--there were nine, I believe, prosecutors. They were all white males. Nine prosecutors is a ridiculous number of prosecutors for a grand jury session. But it was quite remarkable, just the impact of watching those nine white males file past us into the grand jury. And she just took a deep breath and followed them in.

It was interesting because of the juxtaposition with the grand jurors.

The grand jurors, as I recall, were [primarily] African American. I'm actually not sure of what the gender breakdown was... How did Mrs. Clinton do? I mean, you're not in the grand jury, obviously, but what was the sense of how she had done before the grand jury?

She felt very comfortable with the questions. She was completely familiar with what the subjects were that they were going to question her about and seemed to be completely at ease. It was a little unnerving. I've since had the pleasure of being in the grand jury; it is unnerving in that kind of a situation. But she seemed to be as comfortable as one can be under those kinds of circumstances.

Inside your office, inside the White House, indeed, this appearance is a major turning point in terms of how the Independent Counsel is viewed--a certain line had been crossed.

That was the event for me. The meeting that we had [with] Ken Starr about [it really being] necessary to do this grandstanding by calling her into the grand jury--that was the turning point for me. That was when I concluded, having really tried to give the benefit of the doubt for many months, here was a guy who was a federal judge -- he was a Solicitor General, he was someone in my professional circles -- even if you disagree with views, you respect their integrity and have some confidence in it. I thought that that meeting, and his failure to come up with any kind of an explanation for why hauling her into the grand jury was necessary, was the point at which I concluded that he was not out to seek the truth, that he was out to do harm to the president and the first lady and that that was his primary objective. After that, those are the terms on which I approached the whole situation.

It became war after that?

Well, it's hard to go to war with somebody who has grand jury power, and subpoena power. You still have to cooperate, you still have to try and negotiate the best deals you can. You can't just shut down. It's a fact of life, and you have to keep dealing with it. But to have any trust or confidence that what they're doing is actually in the interest of justice, no. That still doesn't justify not complying or cooperating with the legal process. You have to do that under our system of justice. But being smart about what was really going on here, I think, had to affect the strategy.

Did that impression get reinforced when Mrs. Clinton had to be fingerprinted, for example? What was your view on that?

She was fingerprinted for the billing records. And I understood why they wanted to do that, although she actually had acknowledged that she believed that she had handled the billing records during the '92 campaign. So I wasn't quite sure, since she acknowledged handling them, what finding her fingerprints on them was going to establish. That struck me as another indignity that we had to endure, but part of the process.

You develop a mentality with this kind of an assault, where you just accept it as a fact of life, and then you try not to let it distract or divert. I think, over the course of time Hillary got very good at that. She had to because there were other things that were far too important to her...for example, being annoyed with the request for fingerprints would have absorbed energy that she really wanted to keep for something else that was much more important.

She was always known as a first-rate lawyer, in her own right, and an excellent legal mind. To what extent did she influence the legal strategy of the White House?

I think occasionally she'd have a view that she would express. But, again, once she recognized that the legal strategy was being handled by the lawyers and this team that we had set up, she did relax about it, and she didn't worry about it. She didn't focus on it. And it was consistent with her goal not to put a lot of energy into that. She wanted to move forward, and she did not want to be distracted by these kinds of things.

Occasionally she'd have a view about something if it involved some action that she was going to have to take. But she absolutely did not put herself right in the middle of it and try and manage it or lawyer it herself. It was not her agenda.

The reason I ask is one description of her is that she moves from pre-'94, where she's described as sort of the president's premier domestic policy advisor, to after that period becoming his top legal advisor. You didn't see it quite that way.

I didn't see it that way.

Just checking the dates here, we are now up to May '96 --the Independent Counsel talks about issuing a search warrant for the White House private residence. What is that about and what are the reactions of the White House legal staff?

Well, I think by this time we were probably in a mode of...just take a take deep breath and get through it. It's the fact-of-life kind of attitude toward all of this, although this seemed beyond the pale to me.

I got a phone call from I believe it was John Bates, the deputy independent counsel, saying that they had a search warrant that they wanted to execute on the residence. And, you know, I just went nuts. I said, "You're out of your mind. That can't happen."

I asked him what it was for, and he said that it was for a box that they believed might have something related to Vince Foster in it, with Vince Foster's name on top. What it appeared to me is that someone must have said in a grand jury appearance that they had seen a box in the White House somewhere. It must have been pretty nonspecific because John couldn't describe for me how big it was. I said, "Is it a shoe box? Is it a packing box? Is it a jewelry box?"

He said, "I can't give you any details. It's just a box." And he said that an alternative to sending in the FBI agents would be to have me do the search. I thought that was actually pretty clever on his part.

Why?

Because I'm a Washington lawyer. I've got a career and a professional reputation. John and I had worked together enough that he knew I wasn't going to be a White House lawyer for my whole life. I could not afford to participate in any kind of a search that wasn't complete, and thorough, and careful, and certify, if I had to certify, and do it truthfully. So I thought it was sort of clever on his part to do that. Would he really have executed a search warrant and sent in FBI agents? I actually kind of doubt it.

Even after hauling Mrs. Clinton before the grand jury?

It wasn't worth the risk as long as he presented the alternative. It wasn't worth the risk of calling his bluff. He presented an alternative, and that's what we did.

Did you find the box?

No.

What was Mrs. Clinton's reaction to the search warrant news?

Hillary's reaction was, "Fine. Do it." And by that time she was definitely in this mode of, you know, "This is a fact of life. I'm just going to have to live through it, and I'm not going to put my energy into being angry about it or upset about it or resisting it--just do it." And that was that.

To what extent, as you worked with her over these years, did she get angry? I mean, when did you see her really lose her temper about this?

I can't remember a specific incident where she would have lost her temper at something that Starr had done or something that the Republican Congress was doing. I know that there was this continuing sense of frustration at just not comprehending how, given the importance of the issues that she wanted to pay attention to, these people would want to distract her...

She cared deeply about children and families. She wanted to develop those issues, as she has done, and how could anyone want to discourage her from doing that? It was this sense of incomprehension; what would motivate someone to want to undermine this kind of effort in this way? It was that sense of frustration.

Did she think they were out after her personally? I mean, that she was--did she feel embattled because there was this sense that she was the target?

Certainly, when you're a target, it's hard not to take it personally. I certainly hope that she was in a position to recognize that she was just a tool. It wasn't her, personally. But when you're attacked, you're called the terrible things that she's been called along the way and treated with such venom, it's hard not to, at some level, take that personally.

But she's a very strong person, and she has a very strong core. And I would certainly hope that she recognized that she was being used as a tool to get to objectives that were much bigger than just her.

In the summer of '96, the other flap on your watch is the FBI files thing. Was Mrs. Clinton concerned that she would get blamed for that, too, somehow?

I remember there was a moment when she was joking. The FBI files are found in the White House, and it was a completely startling event. And as you know now, the independent counsel has just acknowledged that there was nothing more to it than what we said within 48 hours of finding these files--it was a mistake, and there was no significance to it beyond that. But at the time, it was a great opportunity for the Republicans, again, and they seized it and ran with it.

At one point, as the whole thing was developing, Hillary laughingly said, you know, "Sooner or later they're going to think this is my fault too." And I thought that was completely absurd. I thought it was a ridiculous statement because I had been working with this FBI files issue from the moment that it hit. I knew all of the facts, all of the details. She wasn't anywhere near it. Her name never came up. There wasn't any even remote way that she was connected with this.

Then, sure enough, we get the Republicans, and Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, and others claiming that somehow she had directed this whole thing, and there was absolutely no basis in truth. But she was right.

Why did she become such a lightning rod for all of these things, do you think?

I think that Starr had been looking for something to go after the president on for a long time and hadn't found it. And she was a target that was easier to go after until, of course when Starr finally found the issue. Then Hillary had no significance at all to his investigation.

But I think it was easy to go after her, and the president wasn't terribly involved in the Whitewater issue. She managed that. And, of course, that's come to nothing. The president wasn't terribly involved in the travel office. There were allegations that she was, and I also think she's a compelling, strong, interesting, articulate, lively woman who engages in ways that people may not have been used to or even necessarily comfortable with, and I think it made it easy.

In the fall of--right before the election, the campaign finance stories start coming out with the Riady connection. At some point here, you have a disagreement with the White House about how this is being handled.

Internally you always have judgment calls to make about how you describe something or how [and] when you reveal it, and who you tell, and it's always a question of timing, what's happening at the particular moment; if there's a crisis that diverts. There are always judgment calls about how you characterize something.

And I guess over the course of the time that I was in the White House, I learned that you guys would prefer that we not characterize things; that the people in the White House just gave you the facts and let you figure out what they mean and how they can be characterized. That's not to say that it's not useful to give you the facts and then give you my characterization of them, but it's really the facts that a good investigative reporter wants.

I had also come to appreciate that when you give a characterization without the facts, there's something inherently suspicious about the characterization and that a good investigative reporter tends to want to get behind the characterization to test it. And so it was a judgment call, based on sort of my experience and sense of how things ought to be played. Others in the White House had different views of how some of these meetings that the president had should be described and what kind of information should be--

Are you talking about the coffees now?

I'm actually talking about the meetings that the president had with Mr. Riady and how--how those should be described. And I actually never got too terribly involved in the coffee issue.

What was your argument on Riady?

I worked briefly on this issue, but had done enough research on it to know that there were some descriptions of these meetings that were in records, official White House records, that I thought could be interpreted as more substantive than what others wanted to characterize the meetings as being. They wanted to say that these meetings that the president had were more social in nature. And while I think they were social in nature, the documents suggested that there may have been some substantive policy issues raised in the course of these meetings.

It was a dispute over do we just say they were social and not say more or do we say records reflect that these six subjects were discussed, although I'm telling you that the tone and nature of the meeting was mostly social. And that was an uncomfortable kind of disagreement.

Why did you decide to leave the White House?

When I came to the White House, I had an understanding that I would stay through the election. As you know, when the midterm election occurred, everyone recognized that scandals were going to be high on the priority of the Republicans and that that was a weapon they were going to use to try and defeat the president. I had said I would handle the scandal management through the reelection, and then I was going to leave. I have three children, and 2 or 2 1/2 years on that beat is enough for anyone.

Did your disagreement on the Riady thing prompt you to leave in any way?

No, it didn't. It made my departure more uncomfortable than I had hoped, but I had already planned to leave.

When you now look back, I guess, you actually got the easy part of the scandal management, how do you see the legacy of this president, good and bad? How do you think he will be recollected in history?

I think, over time, the president will be recorded as a terrific president. He's brought us into an era of prosperity that is unprecedented, and I think that the scandal issues will eventually take a proper perspective. Certainly, in the first term, every single scandal that we worked on has been found to be nothing. There was nothing there.

I think that once history takes proper account of that, there will also be some account of how desperate the Clinton haters were to find something. And by "Clinton haters," I do mean this whole group of people that includes Starr, includes the Republican fringe in Congress, and includes all sorts of these other people [such as] the Linda Tripps of the world. I think history will show that their effort to try and diminish this president just cannot survive.

A lot of people have talked to us about the decision, in which it was debated about whether the Whitewater records should have been given to the Washington Post. Some have said that it was the single biggest mistake of the first term because it led to so much heartache. What do you think about that decision not to turn everything over back in '93?

I think everything should have been turned over in '93, but I would take issue with it being the single biggest mistake. These people were bent on harming the president. And if it hadn't been Whitewater, it would have been some other issue. And if it hadn't been not being forthcoming here, it would have been some allegation that they weren't forthcoming there.

These people didn't have anything to hide. They truly didn't. And these allegations of trying to create all of this smoke around an effort to try and maintain some privacy would have persisted into, as it did, every corner of their lives. So even though that set a tone that I think made it harder to deal with, it was harder for someone like me, when I came in, to have sufficient credibility about the facts that we were revealing, for example, when so much had been withheld in the past. It made it hard to manage some of these issues.

But I think these people were so bent on using scandal issues, the politics of personal destruction, as the president has called it, to affect and diminish, if not destroy, the president. I think their motivation was so strong, they would have found something else.

You say that the decision not to turn over the records to the Washington Post was not the most critical one, but do you feel or believe or agree that it led to a certain tone, especially in the press coverage? Did it make the White House look like it was covering things up?

I think it did, and I think that made it difficult then to try and persuade people, when we gave them information, that it was complete and credible and that they ought to rely on it, and that there wasn't something else there. It did end up, I believe, creating this constant worry, on the part of good reporters, and, you know, that there was something else behind this, otherwise why would they resist?

And I don't think the average person appreciates how invasive it would feel if you were asked to just disclose to the press, who would publicize all of your personal financial matters. And that's essentially what they were being asked to do. They did resist. It wasn't that they were hiding anything. They were trying to hold on to some privacy. But it did create an atmosphere where people were questioning, "Well, what is there? Why do they care about this so much? What are they hiding?"

And that, I think, did persist, which is why when Lloyd Cutler came in '94, it was refreshing when he came and said, "We're going to make a full report to Congress. We're not going to claim privileges," because he felt very strongly that it was necessary to overcome that impression, with a completely open investigation.

What was the legal argument at the time for not turning this stuff over? I mean, legal arguments were made to the Clintons, especially Mrs. Clinton, who decided against it.

I suppose that there may have been some material in there to which an attorney-client privilege attached, although I think the arguments were more political than legal. If you put 20 boxes of documents before a bunch of people who either don't understand the transactions or the context in which they arose or they've got questions, [or] are not necessarily going to push them all of the way through, that can create a lot of misinformation that then takes on a life of its own and can cause other inquiries to be opened, possibly legal inquiries, based on the misimpression or false reports, however well-intentioned they were.

At that point in time, it wasn't all that clear exactly what this Whitewater investigation was going to focus on or what they thought was wrong. What did they do--can you sit here today and tell me what you think the Whitewater allegations really were? What on earth was all that about? It's really hard to understand, and it became something that I think could easily be misunderstood and misconstrued.

So the argument was, if you give this information out, you're going to open another can of worms.

You give all sorts of opportunities for people to paw through your personal papers and come up with another six things that they want to investigate, and they start demanding, and it'll never stop. And that's a legitimate argument. I think, ultimately, it all came out anyway, and nobody died. But it was a legitimate kind of concern at the time. It was not a frivolous concern.

Before the White House was divided into the legal team that you headed to take over the scandal, were the scandals dominating business in such a way that it became destructive at the White House?

I think, yes; that it was perceived to be siphoning too much energy from the people who were responsible for helping the president implement his agenda. When you're focused on trying to figure out the facts and run down what everybody knows, and figure out what documents are out there, it becomes very difficult.

This was in a time, you'll recall when the White House Treasury contacts became full-blown. Fiske had subpoenaed several White House officials to go down and testify in the grand jury, and this was incredibly consuming. That's not something you take lightly. All of these people had to scramble to get lawyers, they had to figure out what the documents were, and it was something that really did divert and distract from what people really wanted to be working on.

Were you, yourself, called as a grand jury witness?

I testified in the grand jury about finding the billing records, yes.

Was it important, as well, to separate the press aspect of this out of the White House press secretary? You had your own spokesperson, the first one Mark Fabiani. What was the idea behind that?

It was part of the same idea, where we really wanted Mark Fabiani to be the person who would understand the details and develop the relationships with the members of the press who reported on these issues.

Not all of the mainstream press was absorbed with Whitewater or travel office or FBI files, and there was a cadre of people who Mark worked with and provided information to, and those were people who didn't go and pester Mike McCurry about those things, which meant that Mike could really try and stay about that fray and keep people focused on the issues that the president wanted to stay focused on.

I think that worked quite well. I think Mike thought it worked quite well. There weren't too many times when he had to deal with questions that related to Whitewater-type issues, and it certainly made it easier for us to manage the process and manage the facts. When you disburse facts through a whole West Wing of people who are all talking to their contacts in the press, somebody's going to get it wrong, and they're going to end up saying something that you're going to have trouble explaining later.

This contained it with people who were lawyers, they understood facts, they knew how to talk about them, and developed over time their own credibility by having good information that they were able to manage the process.

The one time that it broke down was when the FBI files matter hit, and that was frustrating to me because normally, if you stay enough ahead of a problem, you figure out how you're going to manage it before it actually blossoms into something that needs to be managed.

The FBI files took me completely by surprise, and so it had already exploded into a real crisis, from my perspective, by the time I had even really heard about it. So I didn't know the facts. I didn't know what was there. I hadn't talked to the relevant people. I didn't know if there was a problem or not. And when you're put in that position and somebody is calling and saying, "Well, how bad is this?" and you say, "I don't know yet. I need some time." And there is no time. People want answers. So you go with an answer sooner than you really think you're ready, and you just hope you've got it right.

That was frustrating because my team didn't have a handle on it, when all of a sudden everyone in the West Wing wanted to know what was going on. And so that causes then other people to start feeling like they need to get the answers. Then it sort of spirals out of control until you sort of pull it back in after a while and persuade people that, indeed, you've got your arms around it. It's working. That was frustrating, and it did distract. I can't remember what else was going on in Congress or what the president was doing during that time period, but it did end up diverting a lot of attention from people who should have been focused on the positive agenda.



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