Clinton strives to put a lid on Whitewater

March 09, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton hired a seasoned hand to run the White House legal office, gave a pep talk to the White House staff and submitted to a 30-minute press grilling yesterday in a day of extraordinary attempts to put a lid on the simmering Whitewater affair.

Mr. Clinton also volunteered casually that there may have been additional contacts between the White House and federal banking regulators about Whitewater, though he insisted that they were "incidental . . . follow-up conversations" about earlier, already disclosed, meetings.

Questions about the propriety of those meetings are what sparked the most recent furor over the Whitewater affair.

In addition, the president said he believes that one of his senior aides, Bruce R. Lindsey, was the one who informed him that the Resolution Trust Corp., the savings-and-loan cleanup agency, was referring to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution a matter concerning the source of some money used in Mr. Clinton's 1984 gubernatorial campaign.

The president said he did not use that information to subsequently interfere with the probe in any way.

"My clear impression was that that was an action the RTC had taken to make this referral, and it didn't seem, you know, it's just something that I knew and absorbed," he said. "I didn't discuss it or ask anybody to do anything or take any action. That never occurred to me."

Sounding determined, but still upbeat, the president implored the news media, Republican members of Congress and other critics to let the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., and his staff investigate the ethical questions surrounding Whitewater so that Mr. Clinton can get back to dealing "with the problems of the people."

"If I did something wrong, it will come out," Mr. Clinton said. "They will find the truth. Let them do it."

Mr. Clinton's tone was not hostile or angry -- he specifically denied being bitter -- and he smiled and laughed frequently throughout the news conference.

The president made these remarks in the presence of 76-year-old Lloyd N. Cutler, a veteran trouble-shooter and Washington lawyer who, Mr. Clinton said, would help establish new procedures within the administration so that no improper discussions are held and so that the facts that need to get out do so.

In an effort to show that he remains focused on the public's business, and not his own, Mr. Clinton also took time to deliver a lengthy speech on health care.

In the West Wing of the White House, however, little work was done yesterday that did not relate to Whitewater, the failed Ozark mountain land development the Clintons invested in back in 1978.

After his news conference, the president summoned the entire White House staff for what amounted to an upbeat pep rally.

In addition, six top White House aides spent part of the day meeting with their lawyers over a subpoena that requires them be prepared to testify at 10 a.m. tomorrow to produce notes and other forms of communications relating to meetings about Whitewater that they attended with Treasury officials.

"That's all people are thinking about," said one White House aide. This official said that the preoccupation now in the White House is that those officials, and others, will be compelled to testify on Capitol Hill.

So far, Democratic congressional leaders have resisted Republican demands for Whitewater-related hearings. But on March 24, the House Banking Committee is scheduled to hold its semiannual review of the RTC. Under the committee's rules, the minority party is allowed one day to call witnesses of its choosing and delve into matters it wants.

Yesterday, Rep. Jim Leach, the top Republican on the committee, indicated what he and other banking committee Republicans have in mind: Mr. Leach sent a letter to the committee chairman, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, with a list of some 40 aides to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, Treasury Department officials, Arkansas associates of the president, RTC officials and others, all of whom they wish to question about Whitewater.

Mr. Fiske has asked ranking Democrats and Republicans in Congress not to proceed with such hearings for fear of jeopardizing possible criminal prosecutions. But Mr. Leach insisted that the public's right to know what is going on is as important -- or more important -- to the nation than any criminal wrongdoing Mr. Fiske might uncover.

"The public's concerns, such as the integrity of the regulatory system, abuse of executive branch power and the need for legislative remedies, are broader than just those issues and events which rise to the level of wrongdoing," he said in a letter to Mr. Fiske.

Mr. Clinton made pains to appear that he is not the primary obstacle to any congressional probes -- and to insist that his aides will not be caught stonewalling.

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