WASHINGTON — In a rare public display of temper, President Clinton angrily declared Thursday that the government should not pay the legal bills of fired White House travel office employees when so many administration officials have been burdened with legal expenses from the Whitewater controversy.
Contradicting earlier statements by his aides, the president said that legal costs incurred by former travel office boss Billy R. Dale should not be paid when other people had been "dragooned and pulled up and had . . . tens of thousands of dollars of legal expenses, who were completely innocent but have been subject to abject harassment."
White House spokesmen had said as recently as Thursday morning that Clinton would sign a bill providing for the payments if it emerged from the Senate, where Democrats have blocked it. But Clinton said that his aides had not consulted with him and fumed: "I don't believe we should give preference to one group of people over others. Do you? Do you?
"Are we going to pay the legal expenses of every person in America who is ever acquitted of an offense?" he demanded.
The outburst, at a briefing called to trumpet the day's good economic news, showed a side of Clinton sometimes seen by aides but rarely glimpsed by outsiders. Later, Clinton apologized to Bill Plante of CBS News, the reporter who had asked the question.
Seeking to clarify the president's statements later, spokesman Barry Toiv said that Clinton was concerned about employees who have had to hire lawyers to help them answer questions in the "numerous investigations . . . on Capitol Hill. And his frustration has been growing, frankly."
A special fund has been set up for private donations to help pay legal fees incurred by the president and his wife. Some of his former and current staff members have also established such legal defense funds.