Attorney General Janet Reno, who faces a grilling this morning on Capitol Hill over her handling of campaign finance investigations, announced Tuesday she is extending the Justice Department investigation of President Clinton’s fund-raising activities.
The action, which could lead to the appointment of an independent counsel, comes as Republicans loudly are castigating Reno - even demanding her resignation - for running what they say is a slipshod investigation that is overly protective of the president.
Reno’s decision Tuesday is not likely to calm the storm.
Republicans wasted no time blasting the move as little more than show, and Reno is expected to face tough questioning about her actions when she testifies this morning before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.
“I think this is just a way to buy time and make it look like they are doing something,” said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a pugnacious member of the House Judiciary Committee. “The way the attorney general has set this whole process up, it’s almost preordained that they will not find sufficient evidence to seek the appointment of an independent counsel.”
Clinton, meanwhile, took the opportunity to charge that Republicans are using the fund-raising issue to score political points.
“I told you yesterday, the thing I didn’t feel good about - the overt, explicit, overbearing attempt to politicize this whole process and to put pressure on more than one actor in it. That’s wrong,” Clinton said in Brazil, where he is on a state visit.
“The fact-finding process should proceed with integrity, the law should be implemented without pressure either way. I’m doing my part, I wish others were doing as well.”
The White House is expected today to begin turning over to congressional and Justice Department investigators some 100 hours of additional videotapes showing Clinton’s meetings with contributors at the White House and elsewhere. Clinton called the tapes “the same old stuff” and said they would be boring to anyone who had attended the coffees. “I’m not worried about it,” he said.
As she pursues questions about Clinton’s role in Democratic Party fund raising, Reno finds herself in a dilemma: If she does not ultimately request an independent counsel, Republicans are likely to accuse her of protecting Clinton. If she does, she may appear to be caving in to GOP pressure.
Thirty days ago, Reno began the formal process of reviewing the president’s actions to decide whether to seek the appointment of an independent counsel. Tuesday’s announcement means she has decided to extend that review for another 60 days.
Ordinarily, that would indicate Reno has found specific, credible evidence to warrant further investigation. But in this case, Reno said she simply could not complete her examination in 30 days.
“Because of the complexity of the factual and legal issues presented by this matter, I have been unable to determine whether there is sufficient specific and credible evidence to suggest a violation of federal law,” Reno reported to a federal court.
Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, played down the significance of Reno’s decision.
“Today’s announcement is hardly surprising,” Kendall said.
He added, “At the conclusion of such an inquiry, however, it will be clear that there are no grounds for the appointment of an independent counsel.”
Reno is exploring similar allegations of improper fund raising against Vice President Gore.
In both cases, the attorney general is focusing on whether fund-raising calls were made from the White House in violation of a law that prohibits political solicitation in government buildings.
Gore has acknowledged making such calls, and Clinton has said he does not remember if he did or not.
Republicans charge that by concentrating only on the phone calls - out of the numerous allegations of Democratic fund-raising abuses - Reno has laid the ground for clearing Clinton and Gore while ignoring the most serious accusations.
“The focuses of their efforts are so narrow and technical,” Barr said of Justice Department investigators. “They are certainly not trying to find a pattern.”