President defends first lady's conduct

March 08, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, thumping on his lectern and clenching his teeth in anger, made an impassioned defense yesterday of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as her role in the Whitewater affair came under increased scrutiny.

"I do not believe for a moment that she has done anything wrong," the president said in response to a question about his wife becoming a focal point of the Whitewater investigation.

"If the rest of the people in this country -- if everybody in this country -- had a character as strong as hers, we wouldn't have half the problems we've got today."

On a day in which Whitewater dominated the agenda at the White House, the president appeared in the East Room at a joint news conference with Eduard A. Shevardnadze, leader of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Visiting foreign reporters asked about foreign policy; the U.S. side was interested only in Whitewater.

Mr. Clinton insisted that Whitewater would not become another Watergate, the scandal that drove President Richard M. Nixon from office 20 years ago. And he continued to blast Republicans for pursuing the issue.

"There is no analogy except any hysteria [the Republicans] can gin up about it," Mr. Clinton said.

"There will not be a cover-up, there will not be an abuse of power in this office. . . . And there is no credible charge that I violated any law. . . . This is going to be a very different thing."

The president said one big difference was that he was cooperating with subpoenas -- not fighting them.

As if to underscore this, Acting White House Counsel Joel Klein issued a written directive for senior White House staff members to go through their personal files, computer messages, trash cans and burn bags for material requested by special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. in a subpoena issued Friday night.

Yesterday, Mr. Fiske took the additional step of requesting that the Senate Banking Committee not conduct hearings into Whitewater in order to preserve "the integrity of our investigation."

Mr. Fiske cited in his letter the problem of prosecuting witnesses who have been granted congressional immunity.

Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat who chairs the banking committee, agreed immediately, thwarting, yet again, the increasingly loud calls of Republicans on Capitol Hill to hold hearings into Whitewater.

Twenty years ago, the question that came to sum up the Watergate cover-up investigation was: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Yesterday, Mr. Clinton was asked if he had known about the private meetings that had occurred between independent federal banking regulators and White House officials -- meetings that gave the White House advance notice that the Justice Department had been asked to investigate the possible illegal funneling of money into Mr. Clinton's 1984 gubernatorial campaign fund.

The president was vague, replying only that in October he had been told that officials of the Resolution Trust Corp. had referred the matter to the Justice Department.

"I knew about that," he said. "I don't remember when I knew about it or who told me about it."

Last night, in an effort to control the political damage being done to the president, three top Clinton spokesmen appeared on various television news shows, all intent on emphasizing the administration's position that no firm accusation of wrongdoing has even been leveled against the president.

But increasingly, it is Mrs. Clinton, not her husband, who lies at the vortex of the Whitewater mess.

* It was she who had the hands-on role in the Whitewater Development Corp., according to James McDougal, the Clintons co-investor.

* It was Mrs. Clinton who was put on a $2,000-a-month retainer to represent Mr. McDougal's now-defunct Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan at a time when oversight for it was the responsibility of Arkansas regulators appointed by her husband, then the governor.

* After Mrs. Clinton and her law partners in the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock represented Madison, the firm then switched sides and represented the government in lawsuits against auditing firms and others who worked for Madison.

* And it was Mrs. Clinton, according to a Washington Times article yesterday, who directed that material be shredded at the Rose Law Firm after the Whitewater issue was first raised two years ago.

"Law firms dispose of their documents all the time," the president said yesterday when asked about this allegation.

Pausing, Mr. Clinton added in a husky voice: "Now, people can ask whatever questions they want and we will do our best to comply. But I'm just telling you, the American people can worry about something else. Her moral compass is as strong as anybody's in this country."

Mrs. Clinton has made no public comment since the weekend's stunning events -- when White House Counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum, her longtime friend, resigned over Whitewater and when 10 present or former administration officials, including her chief of staff, were subpoenaed by Mr. Fiske.

The Associated Press reported that a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said late yesterday that Mr. Clinton would name Lloyd Cutler to succeed Mr. Nussbaum. Mr. Cutler is a well-known attorney and was President Jimmy Carter's White House counsel.

hTC

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