The Nation : What Happened in the Hearings? Nothing!--Just Ask the Democrats

William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Nothing happened.

That was the Clinton Administration's line in last week's Whitewater hearings. And for once, the Democrats had their act together. They communicated the party line forcefully, effectively and, Lord knows, repeatedly.

"Nothing happened as a result of these contacts" between the White House and the Treasury Department, White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler assured the House Banking Committee.

Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.) made the same point when he asked a panel of 10--count 'em, 10--top White House aides, "Did anyone attempt to influence any criminal investigations by the RTC (Resolution Trust Corporation)?"

Chorus of 10: "No."

Get it? Nothing happened. Rep. Jim Bacchus (D-Fla.) summed it up this way: "No crime, no cover up, no news."

The Democrats' strategy was simple: Emphasize people's behavior, not their situation. The fact is, many Administration officials were in compromised situations. The 20-or-so meetings between White House and Treasury Department officials between September, 1993, and February, 1994, created enormous conflicts of interest. The RTC, an arm of the Treasury Department, had initiated criminal "referrals." (Whitewater Glossary: a referral is a request for a criminal investigation.) In those referrals, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were named as possible beneficiaries of criminal activities.

So Clinton appointees were caught in a conflict of interests. They had to serve the interests of the President. And they had to serve the interests of justice in a possible criminal investigation. Look at Roger C. Altman, the beleaguered deputy Treasury secretary and longtime Clinton friend. He was the acting head of the RTC, which is supposed to operate without political interference. In his diary, however, he described White House discussions about resolving the Whitewater issue as "lancing the boil."

In the end, Altman decided he had to "recuse" himself. (Whitewater Glossary: to recuse means to withdraw because of a conflict of interest.) Bernard W. Nussbaum, Cutler's predecessor as White House counsel, had to resign because he, too, faced a conflict of interest. Other White House and Treasury officials--possibly including the President and First Lady--were caught in the same conflict.

But we knew about all that before the hearings. The Republicans couldn't prove these conflicts of interest resulted in any illegal or unethical behavior. Could they prove anyone obstructed justice? No. Could they prove anyone interfered with any investigations? No. So there you are: Nothing happened.

The Republicans tried. They made an issue of the "heads up" passed on from Treasury officials to White House aides to Clinton. (Whitewater Glossary: a heads up is a warning to watch out.) According to the ranking minority member of the Banking Committee, Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), "for the President or the White House to be informed of confidential criminal actions, especially if they touch the White House," means the President put himself above the law.

Leach called it "insider notification." Rep. Michael R. Huffington (R-Calif.) called it "the Washington equivalent of insider trading." Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) called it "insider information." Get it?

No, no, no, the Democrats said. They were simply putting the President in a position to respond truthfully, accurately and promptly to press inquiries. That's an official and legitimate function of the White House staff.

OK, so maybe some White House aides were a bit overzealous. Cutler thought so. "I found there were too many people having too many discussions about too many sensitive matters," he said. They behaved as if they were hiding something about Whitewater. But what? That's the point: In all likelihood, they didn't know. After all, it happened a long time ago, in Arkansas, long before they signed up with Clinton. Not knowing what was there made them all the more frantic.

In the end, however, the President was saved for the same reason his aides were saved: Nothing happened. The Republicans couldn't demonstrate that the President interfered with the Whitewater investigation. Well, actually, one aide wrote in his diary that he was told the President became "furious" when he heard that Altman had recused himself. No, no, no, other aides said. The President was not furious because his friend was no longer in a position to protect him. He was furious because Altman told the New York Times before he told the President.

The Democrats got through last week by exercising the first principle of damage control: Let the worst information out first. Before the hearings began, they leaked all the bad news. Most of it was about Altman. It was reported that Altman was told about the criminal investigations long before he said he was. It was reported that Altman instructed a Treasury official to brief the White House--though he claimed to know nothing about the briefings. Last week, Clinton issued a statement saying Altman still had his complete confidence. That means Altman's on his way out.

The Democrats had to make sure the hearings were an anti-climax. People could learn nothing worse at the hearings than what they already knew. The Democrats on the committee kept reminding people of how little they were learning. "I find this hearing to be boring, uninteresting and uninformative," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) declared. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) labeled it "Waste-water." Bacchus put it best: "No news." Exactly the way the Democrats wanted it.

Republicans are infuriated. They claim the reason they can't prove anything happened is that the Democratic majority exercised tyrannical control of the process. They severely limited the subject matter the committee could ask about.

"The Democrats set the ground rules to prevent us from asking the big questions," Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.) complained. "If these ground rules applied to O.J. Simpson's trial, you couldn't ask him about the knife, you couldn't ask him about the glove, you couldn't ask him about the blood. All you could ask is, 'So, O.J., how was your flight to Chicago?' "

The Democrats have an answer to these complaints: "Tough noogies. Those are the rules." The deal was that the Democrats agreed to hold hearings, but only on topics Independent Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. had finished investigating. So far, this is the death of White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. and the unauthorized contacts between the White House and the Treasury Department. Nothing that happened in Arkansas. Nothing about the Whitewater Development Corp.

Why did Congress make that deal? Iran-Contra. Congressional committees investigating Iran-Contra gave witnesses like Oliver L. North immunity from prosecution based on their testimony. As a result, North's conviction on perjury charges was set aside by the courts.

Republicans were the first ones to call for the appointment of an independent counsel to probe Whitewater. Fiske is a Republican. But that doesn't stop the Republicans from complaining. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas called Fiske "a congressional traffic cop--he has commanded Congress when to go and when to stop."

The Whitewater hearings, Dole said, are "like going to a movie theater, paying $6 a ticket and getting to see only one 60-second preview." Sooner or later, Fiske will complete his investigation of what happened in Arkansas. Then, the audience will get to see the main feature.

What will the Democrats do then? They'll argue that, if something happened in Arkansas long before Clinton became President, it doesn't make any difference. It's irrelevant. Nothing happened.*

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