The Magazine

THE JANET RENO FOLLIES

Oct 27, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 07 • By BRIT HUME
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JANET RENO'S DAYLONG, ROPE-A-DOPE performance before the House Judiciary Committee October 15 was reported in the press as a clash between frustrated Republicans and an attorney general steadfast in her determination to say as little as possible about her investigation of the Clinton fund-raising scandal. She "rebuffed their assault" (New York Times), "held firm" (Washington Post), and "stood her ground" (Los Angeles Times). What such accounts missed, or were too polite to say, was that much of her testimony did not make sense. There were whole passages that were indecipherable, not just as a matter of law, but as a matter of English.


Consider her response to the videotape played at the outset of the hearing by chairman Henry Hyde over the protests of committee Democrats. It was an excerpt from Reno's testimony before a Senate committee in 1993 in support of renewing the independent-counsel statute, which, at the time, had lapsed. " There is," she said then, "an inherent conflict whenever senior executive- branch officials are to be investigated by the department and its appointed head, the attorney general. The attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president. . . . It is absolutely essential for the public and process of the criminal justice system to have confidence in the system, and you cannot do that when there is conflict, or an appearance of conflict in the person who is, in effect, the chief prosecutor."


In her opening statement to the committee, however, Reno explained her current hesitancy to seek an independent counsel in the fund-raising scandal as follows: "The statements I made back in 1993 that you showed on the film are the statements I have stood by. Congress enacted a law. It created a presumption of those people for whom a conflict existed. And it enumerated in a statute. And that is the inherent conflict with senior executive branches that you referred to in the film. When the statute is triggered with respect to those categories of covered persons, I have shown I will trigger it, and I have shown most recently, I will trigger it whether it is the president or the vice president or a cabinet member."


To the extent a point can be discerned in all that, it seems to be this: As Reno now interprets the independent-counsel law, when it comes to a criminal investigation of a president, vice president, or other "covered person," the law presumes that it's a conflict of interest for the attorney general and the Justice Department to conduct the investigation. At that point, the independent-counsel process is automatically "triggered." That begins the cycle of 30-day, then 60-day "preliminary investigations" that must precede the naming of an independent counsel. Thus Reno was proclaiming to the committee that she had "shown" she would do what, according to her, she had no choice but to do.


At the moment, she and her department are in the midst of separate preliminary investigations of both President Clinton and Vice President Gore. These investigations are thought to involve the narrow issue of whether either of these men made campaign solicitations from "official" or "public" places within the White House, something the attorney general said it was her "understanding . . . would represent a violation." Normally, all that's required to start the laborious independent-counsel process is a finding by the attorney general that there is "specific and credible" information constituting "grounds to investigate" whether a top official "may have violated" the law. That may not sound like a very high threshold, but Reno has carefully avoided going even that far. Instead, she has acted under a different provision of the independent-counsel law that says she may start a preliminary investigation when she is "unable to determine . . . whether the information is specific and from a credible source."