It has become almost a daily occurrence: some new eye-opening embarrassment about the White House’s mishandling of Whitewater and Travelgate - with all the earmarks of a cover-up.
The latest came Thursday as the aide who found Hillary Rodham Clinton’s long “missing” legal billing records testified that she discovered them in August in the Clintons’ residence, folded but in plain sight. Only a few days before, she said, the records hadn’t been there.
Testifying before the Senate Whitewater Committee, Carolyn Huber said she found the records on a table in the White House book room, which is used only by the Clintons and a few others. The room is a few paces from Hillary Clinton’s private office.
Huber said she discovered them in early August - when the Senate committee was holding hearings about the removal of documents from the office of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, who had committed suicide in July 1993.
Huber said she didn’t open them but had them taken to her office. “They were sitting on the floor in my office all the four months or how long it’s been,” she said.
When she finally looked at them earlier this month, Huber said she was surprised and troubled, recognizing them immediately as the records that Whitewater investigators had been seeking for two years.
She said she also recognized Foster’s handwriting on the records. There have been repeated questions on what happened to documents in Foster’s office in the hours after his death.
Asked if she assumed someone had deliberately placed them on the table, Huber said: “Someone had.” She said she didn’t assume it was the president or Hillary Clinton. “I just - I didn’t know who left them there,” she said.
Regardless of whether Whitewater turns out to be a real scandal, or simply a perceived one, the Clintons’ appearance of hiding something is what may linger with the public. Consider:
The billing records show Hillary Clinton worked on a real estate deal known as Castle Grande, which is under criminal investigation. She had told investigators she didn’t think she knew about the project.
The White House finally released in late December a lawyer’s subpoenaed notes after a threatened court battle. They contained an intriguing reference: “Vacuum Rose Law files.”
Congressional witnesses have told of White House lawyers keeping investigators away from records in Foster’s office. A Secret Service agent contradicted a top aide to Hillary Clinton, saying he saw the aide carry files out of Foster’s office.
Newly released memos suggest Hillary Clinton was more involved in the travel office firing than she has acknowledged, including a memo that she was “ready to fire them all that day.”
Senate Whitewater Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., said he may submit written questions to Hillary Clinton, based on Huber’s testimony. He has rejected previous requests to ask her to testify.
In past White House scandals such as Watergate and Iran-Contra, the coverups themselves became not only the focus of investigation, but also the source of public outrage.
In fact, the actual Watergate scandal - burglarizing the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters - paled when the extent of the Nixon administration’s coverup came to light.
“We didn’t focus on the burglaries in our hearings, we focused on the coverup, the paying of hush money, the obstruction of justice,” said Sam Dash, who served as chief counsel to the special Senate committee investigating Watergate. “That affected public perception more than the actual burglary.
“What outraged the American people is that their president and his aides engaged in a giant defiance of the system of justice,” Dash continued. “Not the burglary.”
Even in the Iran-Contra scandal, the focus and the outrage was not so much on aiding the Contras in Nicaragua or trading arms for hostages in Iran, but how the Reagan administration behaved after the deal was found out, Dash said, and the fact that documents were shredded and Congress was lied to.
“People are willing to accept mistaken judgment,” Dash said. “But when they get caught, people really want their officials to come clean.”
Suzanne Garment, author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics,” says it’s impossible to tell whether the Clinton White House is covering up something.
“All presidents have been concerned with the presentation of themselves in public,” she said. “The more the public image is under constant attack, the more you feel you have to concentrate on damage control. It sure is distasteful.”
Garment poses this question: “Which is worse: The politician who does funny things cutting corners and then lies, or the person who does really bad things, confesses and expresses contrition?”