Clinton Says He'd Talk to Justice Dept.By John F. Harris and
George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 14, 1997; Page A01
President Clinton said yesterday he is willing to be interviewed by Justice Department investigators if Attorney General Janet Reno requests it as part of her review of whether to seek an independent counsel to examine the president's 1996 fund-raising activities.
"I'll do anything that is necessary to get her and the Justice Department the information they need," Clinton told reporters on Air Force One, as he flew from Caracas, Venezuela, to Brasilia, his second stop on a week-long tour of South America. Asked if that meant being directly questioned by Reno as the attorney general suggested on Sunday she may wish to do Clinton responded that he would speak to her "if she wishes to interview me."
Even before Reno made her comments on NBC's "Meet the Press," lawyers for Clinton and the Justice Department were discussing in broad terms how Clinton might answer questions, a source familiar with Clinton's position said. The source said last night that the president's private attorney, David E. Kendall, was in charge of the discussions for Clinton's side, and that the talks had not reached a conclusion before Clinton left for South America Sunday.
A senior administration official last night noted that Clinton could answer questions in ways shy of a formal interview. For example, he has answered questions from investigators in the Whitewater affair with written affidavits.
Reno must decide by Wednesday whether to take the next step in the independent counsel process by starting a preliminary investigation, which could last for 90 days, of Clinton's fund-raising activities.
In his airborne session with reporters yesterday, Clinton made the remarkable statement that recently he has had virtually no communication with Reno, even on official matters not involving the fund-raising controversy. He said he is so sensitive to charges that he might try to improperly influence her that, for now, the two have effectively suspended a working relationship.
"There is one quarter from which there has been no pressure ours," he said. "I have gone out of my way to have no conversations with her about this, or frankly, anything else, which I'm not sure is so good," Clinton said.
At the same time, he complained that the "Republican attacks on her have been completely unwarranted." Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), have accused Reno of ignoring evidence that they say should have led long ago to an independent counsel to examine fund-raising on White House grounds by Clinton and Vice President Gore, as well as various accusations that contributors may have been rewarded with improper access.
The controversy over Democratic fund-raising that first arose almost exactly a year ago, in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, flared anew last week when White House lawyers belatedly turned over to Senate investigators videotapes of Clinton greeting contributors at White House coffees and other events. The tapes were made for archival purposes by military personnel working for the White House Communications Agency. White House lawyers have said their failure to find the tapes months ago, when investigators asked for all relevant evidence, was due to an oversight.
But they have also been challenged about why, once the discovery was made, there was a three-day delay in alerting the Justice Department. Clinton yesterday blamed his special White House counsel, Lanny A. Breuer, for some of the delay. "You know, I think he made a mistake but he said that," Clinton said. "And he's worked very hard at his job."
Clinton said he was even more upset than Reno by the blunder.
"You think she was mad? You should have been there when I heard about it," Clinton said. Asked if he was "mad" the word Reno used last week to describe her reaction Clinton said: "Of course."
Breuer said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that he deeply regretted not locating the tapes "any quicker than we did" but said his office has been handed "literally hundreds of requests" in the investigations of the 1996 fund-raising practices in support of Clinton's reelection.
Breuer said when his office learned of the tapes, "we did in fact produce them as quickly as possible." But Justice Department officials were infuriated because he failed to return repeated phone calls on Oct. 3 as they were sending off a letter rejecting calls by House Republicans for appointment of an independent counsel.
Breuer notified the Senate investigating committee about the tapes Oct. 3, the day before they were turned over. But he did not tell the Justice Department about them until Oct. 4 and delivered them Oct. 5. In the meantime, Reno had written a letter to Congress that she saw no reason so far to seek an independent counsel to look into Clinton's fund-raising except on one narrow area on which she was still undecided whether Clinton, like Gore, had made fund-raising phone calls from the White House, and whether such calls are illegal.
A top WHCA official told Senate investigators in a deposition Friday that he never got the memo that White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff said he sent out April 28, requesting the videos.
But White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis said yesterday that the full four-page directive, including a request on the second page for all materials about "White House political coffees," was transmitted from the White House Military Office to WHCA.
"In this instance, as with all previous requests, Mr. Ruff's full directive was circulated to each of the elements of the White House Military Office, including WHCA," WHMO director Alan P. Sullivan said in a statement.
"The response back from WHCA [early last May] included no videos or anything else about coffees," Davis said.
Davis said he was not disputing published reports that Steven Smith, WHCA's chief of operations, "did not receive the first two pages of the memo," but had no direct knowledge of why Smith did not.
Sources said the mix-up apparently occurred when WHCA's chief of staff, on receiving the full directive, put it into an e-mail format to send to Smith, and in the process omitted the first two pages.
Harris reported from Brasilia, Lardner from Washington.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company