Clinton taking case directly to people

March 24, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon and Nelson Schwartz | Carl M. Cannon and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau of the Sun Washington bureau chief Paul West contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- In an effort to avoid being swallowed up in the Whitewater affair, President Clinton will hold a news conference tonight to take his case that he has done nothing wrong directly to the American people.

"It's a chance to talk about some of the developments in Washington and around the world," press secretary Dee Dee Myers said. She added: "I expect there will be a lot of questions about Whitewater."

Democratic strategists said that deciding to hold the 7:30 p.m. news conference was a wise move because it will allow Mr. Clinton to deliver his message to a huge national audience. "He gets to explain his side of the story," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "The other thing is, it gives him an opportunity if he wants to release documents . . . to put his spin, his explanation, on whatever he does."

Ms. Myers hinted that Mr. Clinton may release his 1978 and 1979 tax returns or other Whitewater-related information before the evening news conference, the second of his adminconference, the second of his administration.

Mr. Clinton has stressed that he is "cooperating fully" in the Whitewater investigations, but because those returns and other Whitewater Development Corp.-related records have not been made public, the Clintons have left themselves open to the accusation that they are hiding something.

Nevertheless, White House officials said, Mr. Clinton has heeded his critics' call to appoint a special prosecutor, and they said he would make the point tonight that those who want more information should be willing to await the prosecutor's report.

On another front, The Sun has learned that the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., is investigating whether White House officials pressured Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman not to recuse himself from a government inquiry into the failed Arkansas savings and loan that is linked to Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Altman, a Clinton appointee who is serving as acting head of the Resolution Trust Corp., eventually disqualified himself from Whitewater-related matters late last month, after criticism from Republicans in Congress.

At a White House meeting in early February, Bernard Nussbaum, the White House counsel, expressed doubt about whether Mr. Altman should recuse himself and wondered who would oversee the government's investigation if he did step down, the Washington Post reported yesterday, citing unnamed sources. Mr. Nussbaum has since resigned.

If officials had sought to prevent Mr. Altman from recusing himself so as to influence the outcome of the investigation, that could be construed as obstruction of justice. White House aides have steadfastly denied that Mr. Altman was ever pressured.

Phone logs of calls to and from Mr. Altman are being examined, and prosecutors are said to be particularly interested in contacts between Mr. Altman and senior Clinton advisers, including George Stephanopoulos and Bruce R. Lindsey, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers have not put Whitewater behind them and have not regained their equilibrium. And increasingly, the White House seems a dispirited, disorganized place to be during the day.

"It's just hard to summon any enthusiasm to come to work in the morning," said one administration official. "You keep waiting for the next shoe to drop."

The president himself vacillates wildly in his responses to questions about the Whitewater affair and its numerous spinoffs.

Twice this year, Mr. Clinton has abruptly ended interviews and appeared angry when journalists asked him about Whitewater. But in an interview Tuesday with USA Today, Mr. Clinton appeared relaxed and at ease while proclaiming, "We've got a good attitude about it right now. . . ."

Clearly, however, the matter is taking its toll at the White House.

* Mark Gearan, the popular communications director, is now rarely seen in public. He is one of the 11 administration officials who were subpoenaed this month by Mr. Fiske, the special prosecutor.

* Chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty says he does not expect to be questioned -- but he has hired a lawyer, colleagues say.

* In the West Wing, other top officials regularly consult with their attorneys, often in their offices.

But aides working on fashioning the detailed legislative components of specific initiatives, such as those on crime and welfare reform, are busily working away in secluded offices in the Old Executive Office Building. And those selling health care reform are delivering up a presidential event du jour. But each day, it seems, that event is overshadowed by yet another revelation that directs the nation's attention away. to whether the president's staff is having trouble complying with laws, common sense or even the ethical standards outlined by Mr. Clinton himself.

TV COVERAGE

President Clinton's news conference on Whitewater is scheduled to be telecast at 7:30 p.m. on the Baltimore affiliates of ABC (Channel 13), CBS (Channel 11) and NBC (Channel 2), along with CNN and C-SPAN.

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