President Clinton offered Thursday to give the Senate Whitewater Committee the notes it had subpoenaed from a November 1993 meeting of his lawyers. But Republicans on the panel, citing “strings” on the White House offer, declined to accept the records.
Clinton has insisted for more than a week that the notes were covered by the attorney-client privilege, which allows all U.S. citizens to confer privately with their lawyers.
The GOP has accused the White House of hiding something and in doing so has propelled the sputtering Whitewater matter back into the nation’s headlines.
In offering to turn over the notes, the White House asked for these assurances from the committee:
That the Whitewater committee acknowledge the November 1993 meeting of Clinton lawyers could properly have been kept confidential; that the committee not use the release of the notes from that meeting as a precedent to demand other confidential documents; that the committee interview only the government lawyers who attended the meeting and not Clinton’s private attorneys who also were present; and that the panel secure agreement from independent counsel Kenneth Starr and other investigative bodies that they would abide by the terms of the proposed deal.
“Our concern about disclosing the … notes has not had to do with the notes themselves, but instead the possibility that disclosure would result in an argument that there had been a waiver - in whole or in part - of the president’s privileged relationship with counsel,” wrote White House special counsel Jane C. Sherburne, in a letter faxed Thursday morning to the committee.
Sherburne asked the committee to recognize the attorney-client privilege, limit its questions to the White House lawyers present at the meeting, and obtain assurances from Starr and other investigators that they would not charge in some future filing that Clinton had waived his privilege.
But Republican senators on the committee said they would not, and could not, make such guarantees.
“My gosh, I have a tough enough time getting ahold of him” on the phone, said New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, the GOP chairman of the committee, of the White House suggestion that he secure Starr’s compliance.
D’Amato said the committee would agree that a waiver in this instance did not apply to other cases of attorneyclient privilege and would agree to limit its questions to just the White House lawyers.
But the other conditions were “absolutely” not acceptable, D’Amato said.
The Republicans on the panel voted as a bloc to enforce their subpoena if the notes are not delivered today. The motion carried by a 10 to 8 margin, with the Democrats on the panel united in opposition.
Sources close to the case say the notes of the Nov. 1993 meeting - a briefing of Clinton’s private attorneys by his White House lawyers - contain no dramatic revelations.
The Nov. 5, 1993, meeting took place at the offices of David Kendall, who had just been hired by the president and his wife to represent them in the Whitewater matter. The Republicans want to know if the White House lawyers passed on any confidential government information to Kendall.
The White House and committee Democrats charged Thursday that the Republicans realize that the notes contain no “smoking gun” and in turning down the records were proving that their true aim was to harm the president politically - not conduct an investigation.
“We have offered to give Sen. D’Amato what he wants because we have nothing to hide,” said Mark D. Fabiani, an associate White House counsel. “He has refused: showing his true political motivation and his hypocrisy.”
D’Amato is a key supporter of the presidential campaign of Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, the Democrat from Maryland who serves as the ranking minority member of the committee, said D’Amato was seeking a confrontation because the Senate probe has been a political failure for Republicans.
“We’ve had months and months of hearings and tens- and tens-of-thousands of documents,” said Sarbanes. “There’s been no sign of any illegal activity despite every effort to conjure up conspiracy theories.
“This is a political exercise,” said Sarbanes. “The majority is intent on provoking a confrontation.”
If the White House and the committee remain at an impasse, the full Senate may be asked to vote to enforce the panel’s subpoenas next week. If Clinton still declined to comply, the matter could end up in federal court.
In an interview with CBS News Thursday night, Clinton defended his position. “I don’t believe that I should become the first president in history to be asked to give up the right of a confidential relationship with…his own lawyers, without a court at least being given the chance to determine the issue and, if necessary, fashion some limits,” said Clinton.