The Magazine

THE HIDDEN TALE OF TRAVELGATE

Jan 22, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 18 • By BYRON YORK
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when a recently released memo placed First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the center of the White House Travel Office firings, some called it the smoking gun of Travelgate. Here's the proof, they said: She did it and she lied about it.


But students of Travelgate have long known Mrs. Clinton was a major player. What most " intrigues them are questions absent from the press coverage in the past two weeks. Questions like: Why was the Travel Office so important to the new administration? What was going on in the White House that led the First Lady and top officials to rush into action on such a seemingly insignificant issue, firing seven longtime officials and siccing the FBI on them as well? What is the bigger picture of Travelgate?


New information obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD provides at least some of the answers. According to that information and documents released earlier by the House committee investigating the scandal, the takeover of the Travel Office was just the first step in a much larger plan involving the president, the first lady, and their Arkansas/Hollywood friend Harry Thomason. Under the plan, Thomason and his partner in the aircraft consulting firm TRM, Darnell Martens, would have been given a profitable and permanent role in government -- all quite apart from the White House Travel Office. The new information shows just how extensive the plan was.


Thomason performed all sorts of very public services for the Clintohs during the campaign and transition. He produced The Man From Hope, the treacly if effective biographical film played at the convention that nominated Clinton. And he produced the inaugural events that ushered the Clintons into office. ( It is easy to forget just how extravagant it all was -- remember the national bell-ringing, the Monticello bus trip, the Lincoln Memorial concert, the Hollywood-style gala featuring Barbra Streisand?) Thomason did it all without pay. The new president certainly owed him a favor.


It appears that the payback began barely a week into the new administration. On January 29, 1993, Martens wrote a memo to Thomason.


The memo laid out a plan for Thomason and Martens to play significant roles in the world of federal aviation. "If we are to pursue Washington opportunities," Martens wrote, TRM needed to "obtain some form of official status as advisors [sic] to the White House for general aviation policy matters." Once that was accomplished, the next step was to propose a large- scale consulting project to be done by TRM. Martens's idea was a plan to " review all non- military government aircraft to determine financial and operational appropriateness." He said he could save the taxpayers millions of dollars by running the government's 1,800-plane fleet more efficiently.


In the memo, Martens recommended that he and Thomason visit Washington to meet with officials at the Department of Transportation and the White House to discuss the plan. He also mentioned that they should "determine who controls the scheduling of the White House press corps aircraft. This can be done by TRM, much as the campaign aircraft were handled." Finally, Martens added that TRM should be involved in "FAA Administrator: selection assistance, policy recommendations."


This Jan. 29 document is astonishing in the breadth of its ambitions; Thomason and Martens seemed to be planning to set themselves up as a sort of kitchen-cabinet Federal Aviation Administration. The Travel Office takeover seemed a relatively small part of the plan.


At a February 10 Cabinet meeting, Clinton mentioned that his "staff" had told him that lots of money could be saved by reviewing the operation of all government aircraft. On February 11, citing the president's statement, Martens wrote a second and more detailed memo to Thomason. He proposed a "plane by plane" inventory of the government's fleet. "We've demonstrated our capabilities to the President by coordinating all aircraft activities for the Clinton For President Committee," Martens wrote. "Now we have an opportunity to make a substantive contribution to the deficit reduction plans." He estimated the cost of the one-year audit at $ 499,000. All that was needed, he continued, was for someone to "put me in front of the right person at the White House and I will prove the value of both the project and Thomason's capabilities."