January 18, 1996 in Nation/World

White House Aide Says First Lady Didn’t Order Purge But Watkins’ Notes Show She Was Force Behind Travel Office Firings

Charles V. Zehren Newsday
 

“Fire them all” was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s attitude shortly before presidential assistant David Watkins dismissed White House travel office employees in May 1993, according to notes taken by Watkins and disclosed Wednesday before Congress.

Despite what he wrote, Watkins told the Republican-controlled House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that he had little contact with the first lady and she “did not order me to fire them.”

Instead, Watkins testified, the decision was made in conjunction with White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster and approved by then-chief of staff Thomas McLarty. Watkins said he felt “great pressure” by Foster and McLarty to remove the employees, but he asserted, “I did not feel any pressure from the first lady.”

Nevertheless, Watkins’ newly disclosed notes show that twice in the week before the firings, he was told by top presidential advisers that Hillary Clinton wanted the workers out.

On May 12, 1993, for example, he wrote that TV producer Harry Thomason, a close ally of the Clintons, told him that he had “bumped into Hillary and she’s ready to fire them all that day.” Watkins said Wednesday that his notes are accurate.

The new notes also show that Foster told Watkins on May 12 and 13 that the “first lady had inquired about travel office and why wasn’t action being taken.”

“Report was that they should be fired immediately and out of there by the end of the day,” Watkins wrote.

Six months after the firings, Watkins wrote in a long-sought-after draft memo which the White House said it discovered recently that there would be “hell to pay” if he did not fire travel office workers “in conformity with the first lady’s wishes.”

Notes previously released by Watkins indicated that Hillary Clinton told him May 14 that “we need those people out. We need our people in.”

Watkins’ testimony and the documents released by committee Chairman Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., added new weight to Republican allegations that Clinton is not telling the entire truth when she denies close involvement in the May 19, 1993, firings, and that the firings were not due solely to mismanagement.

Moreover, Clinger said, new evidence in the two-year investigation supports Republican claims that the White House manufactured allegations of financial wrongdoing to oust the career workers so that a consulting firm owned by Thomason - producer of such television shows as “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade” - could obtain the business for a consulting company he owned. “The Clinton White House has brought this debacle on itself,” Clinger said.

“So what!” shouted Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee’s ranking Democrat, in summing up Wednesday’s hearing and asserting that even if Hillary Clinton did order the firings, it would not have been illegal or unethical.

Congress did not investigate former first lady Nancy Reagan’s role in the 1987 firing of former President Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan, Waxman said, dismissing the entire investigation as a politically motivated election-year stunt.

Nevertheless, Democrats as well as Republicans criticized the White House for botching the travel office firings and prolonging the affair by apparently mishandling the documents.

Before testifying, Watkins invoked a House rule that permits witnesses to testify without television and still cameras. Even Democrats were chagrined by that move, thinking that it gave the appearance that Watkins had something to hide.

“You’ve created an aura now that there’s something here that should really be looked into,” said Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., who called Watkins’ decision the “dumbest thing” about the entire affair.

The White House said later it did not endorse Watkins’ decision.


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