Spirited and unrepentant, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum defended his conduct in the aftermath of Vincent Foster’s suicide. But senators pressed him Wednesday about conflicts between his versions and those of other witnesses on key events.
Directly confronting the biggest criticism lodged against him, Nussbaum testified he had an “ethical duty” as the president’s chief lawyer to restrict police access to Foster’s documents after his July 1993 death.
“It may sound arrogant … but I’ll tell you, on the big calls, and I had to make a lot of big calls, I was right. I made the right judgments,” Nussbaum told the Senate Whitewater Committee.
He also disputed Republican suggestions that President Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton influenced him on the search of Foster’s office or that his decisions had anything to do with documents in the office concerning their Whitewater real estate venture.
The night after police were allowed into the office of Foster, then Nussbaum’s top deputy, documents about the Clintons’ personal finances, including Whitewater, were removed and taken to their White House residence. The documents were later to be turned over to their private lawyer.
Some senators sought to pick at parts of Nussbaum’s account that differed from the earlier testimony of Margaret Williams, the first lady’s chief of staff, and Susan Thomases, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends.
In an attempt to delve into one inconsistency, committee chairman Alfonse D’Amato said he wants to subpoena phone records for Thomases “and for the Rodham residence in Little Rock and from Margaret Williams’ residence.”
Thomases said that in a conversation with Nussbaum, he brought up the subject of searching Foster’s office. Nussbaum said the opposite, that it was Thomases who brought up the subject by saying she understood there was concern about the process for searching Foster’s office.
Thomases said Nussbaum’s plan to control the search of Foster’s office never came up in any of three earlier phone calls she had with the president, first lady and Williams.
How would Thomases have known to express concern about the search if she hadn’t been told about it in those three calls with the Clintons and Williams? asked D’Amato, who wants to find out if there were other calls.
White House spokesman Mark Fabiani said Thomases, Hillary Clinton’s mother and Williams want to cooperate voluntarily in providing the phone records.
Nussbaum’s defense amounted to a lawyerly lecture at times as he insisted that the code of ethics required that he - and not Park Police detectives or Justice Department lawyers - review the documents. There were documents that were protected by both executive privilege and lawyer-client confidentiality, he said.
“It was my ethical duty as a lawyer and as White House counsel to protect a client’s information and confidences, and not to disclose them without a prior review by me,” he testified.
Nussbaum also disputed the testimony of former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, who told the committee Nussbaum reneged on an agreement to allow Justice Department attorneys to briefly scan Foster’s papers.
Nussbaum said there was no such agreement, just that he agreed to consider the idea and later rejected it. “I was leaning over backwards throughout this process,” he said.
He said he didn’t remember receiving an angry call from Heymann after police and Justice Department lawyers were forced to sit and watch as Nussbaum went through the documents.