Reno likely to keep job for now, officials say White House is abuzz as counsel Quinn resigns

December 13, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Janet Reno, whose future as attorney general has been in doubt, met at the White House last night with President Clinton amid strong signs that she can keep her job -- at least for now.

Two top White House aides consulted with the president shortly before 9 p.m. to ask how the meeting had gone, one of them said. Clinton smiled and said, "We had a wonderful conversation -- and I'll tell everyone about it tomorrow," the aide reported.

The president went into his meeting with Reno intending to ask the attorney general to stay on, said two highly placed White House officials. They said last night that they assumed this had been done.

Meanwhile, the White House was abuzz yesterday over the abrupt announcement of Jack Quinn's resignation as White House counsel.

In a letter late Wednesday night to the president, Quinn cited his desire to earn more and to spend more time with his family. Quinn joined the Clinton administration as Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff, and for the past 15 months has held one of the most high-pressure jobs in the White House -- overseeing its response to Whitewater allegations and congressional investigations into the Clintons.

In his resignation letter, Quinn told the president: "Only my obligations to family could bring me to this decision; it saddens me deeply to leave a job I love dearly and the service of a president I so respect and admire."

Last night, Quinn, a partner in a high-profile Washington law firm before joining the administration four years ago, insisted that personal reasons were behind his departure, which is slated for Feb. 15.

Reno's fate has been up in the air since the day after Clinton's re-election victory.

Early in her tenure as the nation's first female attorney general, Reno was routinely touted by the president and other White House aides as one of the shining lights of the Cabinet. In the five weeks since Nov. 5, however, unnamed aides have been quoted as questioning whether she is a team player, apparently because of her willingness to appoint special prosecutors to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by administration officials.

Reno in limbo

Ignoring such signals, the 58-year-old Reno, who has Parkinson's disease, said publicly that she wanted to stay.

When asked whether she would be allowed to do so, the president and top White House officials have refused to answer or have offered mild praise.

This awkward game of limbo continued yesterday. When asked during a news conference whether she would remain, Reno replied: "Anything like that, the president has to talk about."

Hours later, at a White House photo session with members of his Cabinet, Clinton was asked about Reno's fate. With the attorney general sitting directly across from him, Clinton said only that Reno was among "four or five of my Cabinet members that I haven't met with."

"I'm going to try to get it all done by the end of the week," he said.

Later, White House aides put out the word that Clinton would meet with Reno last night or today, adding: "She can probably stay, if she wants to."

A surprising resignation

Of more pressing concern inside the White House was the sudden announcement by Quinn that he was leaving. His replacement, expected to be his deputy, Kathleen Wallman, would be the fifth White House counsel in four years.

Numerous deputy and assistant White House counsels have left, as well. One, Vincent W. Foster Jr., committed suicide.

As White House counsel, the 46-year-old Quinn was in charge of overseeing the legal, political and public relations responses to Whitewater, the Indonesian fund-raising scandals and investigations into the White House travel office.

To those who had been expecting to work with Quinn, his unforeseen resignation came as a surprise.

"I am fairly disoriented today because of this," said Lanny Davis, the attorney recently hired by Quinn to coordinate public responses to scandal-related questions. "A large part of my comfort level was because of Jack Quinn being here."

Quinn, formerly the vice president's chief of staff, had hoped to replace Leon E. Panetta as White House chief of staff. After Erskine B. Bowles, a North Carolina businessman, was selected instead, Quinn immersed himself in the task of reorganizing the White House counsel's office, which was hit by a rash of resignations after the Nov. 5 election.

At his insistence, Quinn had been given vastly increased authority to deal with Whitewater and other such issues. And he had been assembling a team of lawyers, in addition to Davis, to assist him.

Such preparations lent an air of mystery to Quinn's sudden departure.

"This is just counterintuitive to how he was acting," said one colleague. "It's just odd."

Another observed wryly that Quinn obviously had had children at home and had known his salary ($125,000) for the past 15 months.

Quinn explained yesterday to surprised co-workers that his plan all along had been to leave the White House in 1997 after the team he was putting together was up and running. Recently, he LTC said, he put out job feelers that he had hoped would remain discreet, but when the Wall Street Journal got wind of his plans Wednesday, it forced his hand.

"After he got the call from the Journal, he hurriedly scheduled a meeting with Gore," said one official. "Then last night [Wednesday], he met in the Oval Office with the president."

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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