Armed with 100 hours of new White House videotapes, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee attacked Attorney General Janet Reno on Wednesday for shunning an independent counsel investigation of President Clinton’s fund raising.
But Reno never wavered, saying that her decisions are “based on the facts and the law - and nothing else.”
With Congress out of session and little else going on, the hearing was the biggest show in town. The committee room was packed with reporters, and committee Republicans, who have been out of the limelight during the campaign-finance controversy, saw a chance to shine.
In the end, though, the daylong hearing didn’t produce much new. Reno calmly held her own, revealed little and didn’t change her position.
She did promise several times that she would not end any part of the investigation without FBI Director Louis Freeh’s agreement, which is unusual because the FBI and the Justice Department have had tense relations at times.
Reno frequently told House members that the law prevents her from sharing details of the investigation. “If I could tell you what was being done, I think you would feel much more comfortable,” she said during her appearance, which came a day after she extended a preliminary investigation into Clinton’s fund-raising telephone calls.
And showing her characteristic independent streak, the former Dade County prosecutor told the committee that if she loses her job, “I can go home to Miami. And now that we’ve got a World Series team, that has some merit, too.”
Committee Chairman Henry Hyde quoted a CNN/USA Today poll showing that 73 percent of Americans believe an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate allegations of illegal fund raising.
“By overwhelming margins, the American people continue to indicate a lack of confidence in the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate the administration fairly,” the Illinois Republican told Reno. “We can equivocate, split hairs and rationalize as much as we want, but the simple fact is that the average American wants an independent counsel.”
Reno fired back that polls shouldn’t be a factor.
“I don’t think the American people want polls involved, otherwise you would have written a statute that said, ‘When 51 percent of the American people think there should be an independent counsel statute, we’ll have one,”’ the attorney general said. “And I don’t think that’s what you want, Mr. Chairman.”
The Democrats came to Reno’s defense. “Your integrity is unimpeachable, no pun intended,” Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., said, referring to GOP threats to impeach her.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said Republicans should ask for a probe of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s support of a $50 billion tax break for tobacco companies in the balanced budget deal, in light of their contributions to the Republican Party.
In a testy exchange, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., challenged Reno about newly released White House tapes showing the president praising Democratic fund-raiser John Huang as “being the one who always came through.”
Huang was a Commerce Department official and a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee among Asian-Americans. He was a key middleman for illicit Asian contributions to the Democratic Party. More than a $1 million he solicited has been returned by the party.
“If the president was truly in the dark, I don’t think he would have been so effusive of his praise of Mr. Huang, particularly on tape,” Sensenbrenner said.
But Reno replied that nothing in the taped statement indicated the president knew of criminal activity.
“And to suggest that is to engage in the rumor and innuendo that we try to avoid in the Department of Justice to make sure that the power of the federal government is not directed toward people in an unwarranted manner,” she said.
Undeterred, Sensenbrenner fired back at her.
“For the Justice Department and its leader to say that the president didn’t do anything wrong by pouring effusive praise on Mr. Huang … is something that really destroys your credibility and the credibility of your department,” he said. “And I think that alone ought to be enough for you to wash your hands of the affair and to appoint an independent counsel.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONTENTIOUS HEARING “I’m not alone in believing her situation fairly bristles with conflicts of interest.” - Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. “I call it like I see it, regardless of the person or the party.” - Attorney General Janet Reno