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The Nation : What Happened in the Hearings? Nothing!--Just Ask the Democrats

July 31, 1994|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — Nothing happened.

That was the Clinton Administration's line in last week's Whitewater hearings. And for once, the Democrats had their act together. They communicated the party line forcefully, effectively and, Lord knows, repeatedly.

"Nothing happened as a result of these contacts" between the White House and the Treasury Department, White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler assured the House Banking Committee.

Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.) made the same point when he asked a panel of 10--count 'em, 10--top White House aides, "Did anyone attempt to influence any criminal investigations by the RTC (Resolution Trust Corporation)?"

Chorus of 10: "No."

Get it? Nothing happened. Rep. Jim Bacchus (D-Fla.) summed it up this way: "No crime, no cover up, no news."

The Democrats' strategy was simple: Emphasize people's behavior, not their situation. The fact is, many Administration officials were in compromised situations. The 20-or-so meetings between White House and Treasury Department officials between September, 1993, and February, 1994, created enormous conflicts of interest. The RTC, an arm of the Treasury Department, had initiated criminal "referrals." (Whitewater Glossary: a referral is a request for a criminal investigation.) In those referrals, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were named as possible beneficiaries of criminal activities.

So Clinton appointees were caught in a conflict of interests. They had to serve the interests of the President. And they had to serve the interests of justice in a possible criminal investigation. Look at Roger C. Altman, the beleaguered deputy Treasury secretary and longtime Clinton friend. He was the acting head of the RTC, which is supposed to operate without political interference. In his diary, however, he described White House discussions about resolving the Whitewater issue as "lancing the boil."

In the end, Altman decided he had to "recuse" himself. (Whitewater Glossary: to recuse means to withdraw because of a conflict of interest.) Bernard W. Nussbaum, Cutler's predecessor as White House counsel, had to resign because he, too, faced a conflict of interest. Other White House and Treasury officials--possibly including the President and First Lady--were caught in the same conflict.

But we knew about all that before the hearings. The Republicans couldn't prove these conflicts of interest resulted in any illegal or unethical behavior. Could they prove anyone obstructed justice? No. Could they prove anyone interfered with any investigations? No. So there you are: Nothing happened.

The Republicans tried. They made an issue of the "heads up" passed on from Treasury officials to White House aides to Clinton. (Whitewater Glossary: a heads up is a warning to watch out.) According to the ranking minority member of the Banking Committee, Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), "for the President or the White House to be informed of confidential criminal actions, especially if they touch the White House," means the President put himself above the law.

Leach called it "insider notification." Rep. Michael R. Huffington (R-Calif.) called it "the Washington equivalent of insider trading." Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) called it "insider information." Get it?

No, no, no, the Democrats said. They were simply putting the President in a position to respond truthfully, accurately and promptly to press inquiries. That's an official and legitimate function of the White House staff.

OK, so maybe some White House aides were a bit overzealous. Cutler thought so. "I found there were too many people having too many discussions about too many sensitive matters," he said. They behaved as if they were hiding something about Whitewater. But what? That's the point: In all likelihood, they didn't know. After all, it happened a long time ago, in Arkansas, long before they signed up with Clinton. Not knowing what was there made them all the more frantic.

In the end, however, the President was saved for the same reason his aides were saved: Nothing happened. The Republicans couldn't demonstrate that the President interfered with the Whitewater investigation. Well, actually, one aide wrote in his diary that he was told the President became "furious" when he heard that Altman had recused himself. No, no, no, other aides said. The President was not furious because his friend was no longer in a position to protect him. He was furious because Altman told the New York Times before he told the President.

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