Isolated Reno Plods Familiar Course As Criticism From Capitol Hill Grows
By Roberto Suro
While many in Washington enjoyed the warm weather last Sunday afternoon, Attorney General Janet Reno sat alone in her office dressed in blue jeans, preparing for a congressional hearing that Republicans had advertised as an inquisition into her refusal to seek an independent counsel in the campaign finance scandal.
But instead of dwelling on that vast and complex investigation, Reno buried herself in two big white binders full of briefing papers on crime prevention programs, anti-trust cases and other law enforcement matters on the off-chance a member of Congress might ask about the routine work of the Justice Department.
When Reno spent seven hours in front of the House Judiciary Committee fending off her Republican critics last Wednesday, the white binders sat on the table in front of her. They rested unopened most of the day, yet their presence symbolized much of what Reno considers to be at risk in the debate over her handling of the campaign finance investigation.
Since coming to Washington in 1993, Reno has positioned herself as a solitary figure whose chief constituency and chief interest is the Cabinet department she heads. Reno maintains working relationships at the White House, in Congress and among interest groups, but she has no powerful alliances. Now, more embattled and alone than at any other time in her tenure, Reno is defending both her own judgment and the Justice Department simultaneously.
"She has to stand up for the institution because the institution and the rule of law have become synonymous in this situation," said an official close to Reno. "You simply cannot have a society in which people doubt the Justice Department's ability to carry out a major investigation."
Reno first articulated her position on the department's role in investigating campaign finance abuses days after the 1996 election. A letter refusing a request from Common Cause, the public interest group, to appoint an independent counsel disputed the suggestion that because the alleged crimes involved senior political figures "the Department of Justice is automatically disqualified from its traditional role as the enforcer of federal criminal law."
Reno has consistently argued since that it is the department's job to investigate allegations of campaign wrongdoing unless evidence emerges that meets the strict tests for triggering the Independent Counsel Act. The stakes for the department, high to begin with, have grown much higher as the allegations multiplied. Today the department is investigating actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore, dozens of fund-raisers and at least one foreign government, the People's Republic of China.
During her marathon hearing last week Reno was defiant about her position: "I call it like I see it, regardless of the person or party." And she betrayed emotion when she spoke in defense of the Justice Department. With a quaver in her voice, she said she wanted to "let the American people know that these are not bureaucrats in Washington; these are people who care profoundly about this country, work long hours, and deserve the gratitude and respect of the American people."
The particular manner in which Reno has exercised her devotion to the institution its people and the values it represents helps explain her decisions in the independent counsel controversy. It also illuminates her relationship with both the White House, which she is investigating, and the Republican-led Congress, where she is castigated on an almost daily basis. Although even her critics say her position is highly principled, even many of her supporters acknowledge that her record as attorney general is mixed and that her lack of clout in official Washington is partially to blame.
For example, there is widespread concern among experts that the single greatest crisis in federal law enforcement today is the growing list of vacancies on the federal bench. Huge backlogs of untried cases have developed around the country because more than 10 percent of all the slots for U.S. District and Circuit judges are unfilled.
Reno has complained repeatedly but neither Congress nor the White House has paid much heed. Now with the campaign finance investigation consuming more and more of her time and political capital, Reno seems even less capable of resolving a problem that threatens the functioning of the institution she values so deeply.
Reno is already one of the longest-serving attorneys general in U.S. history, and yet she has no more than a distant professional relationship with the president she serves. At the institutional level her Justice Department and his White House have settled into a chilly mutual accommodation.
Fresh from the 1992 campaign, many of Clinton's top aides were stunned when Reno resisted or simply ignored their efforts at "message control." A Justice Department official who participated in some of the resulting skirmishes said: "The White House people hated the fact that Reno would not play ball with them. She had her own agenda, the department's agenda, and when that coincided with the White House's political plans, that was fine, but when it didn't, she was going to her own way regardless."
In 1994 and 1995 the agendas often overlapped very effectively during the Cuban rafters crisis and the enactment of major crime legislation. Republicans even accused Reno of overt partisanship in the way she handled illegal immigration when it became a major political issue in California.
From the White House point of view, the greatest divergences involved Reno's decisions to seek the appointment of independent counsels to investigate three Cabinet secretaries, including Clinton's close friend, then Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown and another important political ally, then Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros. No charges were filed against Brown before he died in April 1996, and the Cisneros investigation remains active.
Early in the administration, Reno's inner circle always included at least one representative of the White House. Webster L. Hubbell, one of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's former law partners, served as associate attorney general. Later, Ron Klain, now Vice President Gore's chief of staff, worked as one of Reno's top aides.
Reno also had her ambassadors to the White House. Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general until she resigned this year, served as what she described as a "switchboard" who ensured that connections were made between the two institutions. Reno's deputy chief of staff, Kent Markus, serves in a similar role though at a lower level.
"There is so much water under the bridge now that no one expects an intimate relationship," said a Justice Department official. "The White House understands Reno is an independent operator and we have mechanisms in place so we can each talk about what we're each doing and cooperate where possible."
The distance inherent in this relationship was most evident when the White House initiated a review of affirmative action policies in 1995. Although the Justice Department provided legal input, Reno had no personal role in the most significant decision-making on civil rights undertaken by the Clinton administration. For months political considerations were weighed against matters of principle, and no one either at the Justice Department or at the White House found it unusual that the president did not include his attorney general in his deliberations.
Thus last week when Clinton chastised Republicans for pressuring Reno on the independent counsel issue, he added blithely, "I have gone out of my way to have no conversation with her about this or, frankly anything else, which I'm not sure is so good."
Asked about this statement by reporters, Reno insisted that she felt she could contact the president whenever the department's business required it. However, when she gave an example, Reno reached back to counsel she had given Clinton for a speech the president delivered last February.
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company