First lady asks Clinton to end clemency offer

Puerto Ricans' failure to renounce violence prompts her decision

September 05, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Hillary Rodham Clinton called on President Clinton yesterday to immediately withdraw his offer to commute the prison sentences of 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist organization, saying they had failed to meet his demand to renounce violence in exchange for clemency.

The White House responded by saying it had set a deadline of 5 p.m. Friday for the prisoners, who have been connected to at least 130 bombings of military and political installations in the United States between 1974 and 1983, to meet the president's conditions. But the first lady said that was not soon enough for her.

"She believes the offer of clemency should be withdrawn now," her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said.

The disagreement between the first lady and her husband on this high-profile topic came as Mrs. Clinton's supporters have voiced growing concern that Mr. Clinton's offer of clemency -- which the first lady asserted yesterday was done without her knowledge -- threatened to complicate her likely campaign for the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats have assailed the clemency offer, and Mrs. Clinton's opponents have accused the president of using the White House to curry favor for Mrs. Clinton among Hispanic voters, an influential and growing segment of New York's political electorate.

Mrs. Clinton's statement, issued by her Senate exploratory committee as she spent the weekend at Camp David with her husband, did not take issue with the president's original decision, announced Aug. 11, to offer a conditional clemency to the 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, the initials for the Spanish rendering of the name.

But she noted that the president had made the offer on the condition that the prisoners -- none of whom had been directly related to any crimes that resulted in death or injury -- renounce any future acts of violence.

"It's been three weeks and their silence speaks volumes," Mrs. Clinton said in the statement. "I believe the offer of clemency should be withdrawn."

The first lady's announcement set off a confused couple of hours involving the White House and Mrs. Clinton's exploratory campaign.

A White House spokesman, Jim Kennedy, said the administration had sent a letter on Friday to the Chicago-based lawyer for the 16 FALN members, setting the Sept. 10 deadline. White House aides said they were unaware that Mrs. Clinton was about to step into the dispute when they set the deadline.

Mrs. Clinton's aides alerted reporters to her statement shortly before 1: 30 p.m. yesterday. Wolfson said that Mrs. Clinton did not know about the White House letter at the time. He said she had alerted the president to her concerns about the clemency offer while they were vacationing, but did not inform the president of her intention to issue a public statement until yesterday morning.

"She found out about the letter when she told the president about the statement," Wolfson said. "While she is pleased with the letter, she believes the offer of clemency should be withdrawn now."

Until now the first lady had, by all appearances, embraced the administration line, saying that the prisoners should not be released until they renounced violence. This was the first time Mrs. Clinton had made any mention of a deadline.

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican who is likely to run for the Senate against Mrs. Clinton, and who had called on the president to withdraw the clemency offer, declined through a City Hall spokesman to comment on Mrs. Clinton's action.

Mrs. Clinton's statement marked the latest, and clearly the most striking, attempt by the first lady to distance herself from the administration on an issue in which White House policy might prove problematic to a Democrat seeking to become senator from New York.

Earlier, she had joined New York political and labor leaders at a White House meeting complaining about Mr. Clinton's proposed cuts in Medicare reimbursements to hospitals. She had also parted with the State Department on Mideast policy, saying she thought Jerusalem should be the "eternal and indivisible capital of Israel."

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