Transcript of former labor secretary nominee Linda Chavez on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports"
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight: a stumble for the Bush transition. The president-elect's choice for labor secretary calls it quits amid questions about an illegal immigrant who once lived in her home.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LINDA CHAVEZ, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY NOMINEE: I have decided that I am becoming a distraction, and therefore, I have asked President Bush to withdraw my name for secretary of labor.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I'll have a live one-on-one interview with Linda Chavez: why she decided to withdraw and what it means to her supporters and her political opponents.
And we'll look ahead to possible new candidates. We'll go live to Austin and CNN correspondent Major Garrett.
Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting tonight from Washington.
It was Sunday morning when we first learned President-elect George W. Bush's designated labor secretary, Linda Chavez, may have a serious problem involving an illegal immigrant. Today, amid a flurry of questions and the prospect of tough confirmation hearings, she withdrew her name from consideration, and that's our top story.
CHAVEZ: Hi. I'm Linda Chavez. I guess you all know that.
BLITZER (voice-over): Linda Chavez came to her news conference surrounded by family, friends and immigrants she had helped over the years. She said she no longer wanted to be a distraction for the president-elect.
CHAVEZ: I do this with some regret, because I think that it is a very, very bad signal to all of those good people out there who want to serve their government and want to serve the people of the United States. But so long as the game in Washington is a game of search and destroy, I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve.
BLITZER: Sources say the former Reagan White House official had come under strong pressure from some Bush advisers to drop out. Among them, there was mounting concern she would face an uphill, perhaps even futile struggle for confirmation.
She had earlier come under fire from organized labor and many Democrats for her opposition to an increase in the minimum wage and affirmative action.
Still, upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, the president-elect praised Chavez.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am saddened that Linda Chavez will not be in my Cabinet. I have just been briefed on her statement. I appreciate her -- her statement.
I absolutely believe she would have been a fine Cabinet secretary, but I can understand her reluctance to move forward. And I wish her and her family all the best.
I considered her a friend before; I consider her a friend now. And so I'm going to begin the search for a new nominee to -- for the labor secretary.
BLITZER: And joining us now to talk about all of this is Linda Chavez, and Ms. Chavez, thank you so much for joining us.
CHAVEZ: Great to be with you.
BLITZER: You heard the president-elect. Did you have a chance these past few days since the story erupted to talk with him directly?
CHAVEZ: No, I didn't. I didn't call him. No one called me, so I did not have a chance to talk with him directly.
BLITZER: Wouldn't that be a little strange, though? Here, you were after all his nominee to become the labor secretary. Before this decision you made today to withdraw your name, don't you think you should have at least spoken with him directly?
CHAVEZ: You know, Wolf, I put them in a very difficult situation. I caused a problem for them. I played this game on both sides. I've seen both sides of these kinds of issues.
I'm very sympathetic with President Bush -- President-elect Bush. I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. I understand that his interests right now is in moving forward, getting his nominees confirmed. I was a distraction. That's why I pulled out.
And I don't have any regrets except the regret of perhaps embarrassing him.
BLITZER: The -- what we're hearing from some sources close to the president-elect is that they really feel they didn't do anything wrong, that you in effect gave them bad information -- some of the vetting people, some of the aides -- about this illegal immigrant that had lived with you in the early '90s.
CHAVEZ: Actually, I gave them no bad information. The minute the issue was raised with them, I gave them absolutely accurate information and I gave them a full explanation, and I put it into the context of my life.
I grew up under hard circumstances. I had people who helped me all my life from childhood all the way to adulthood. And when I became an adult, I turned around and tried to do the same for other people. And I really have a history in my life of doing that.
I explained it to them in those terms.
BLITZER: Once the story came out?
CHAVEZ: Right, once I was asked about it. BLITZER: But why not earlier? Why not in the whole process, when they first to come to you, "Would you be interested in being labor secretary?" say, sure, but you know, there may be a problem?
CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, Wolf, you have to understand this is the most truncated kind of vetting process that I've ever seen, and I've been considered and been approved for positions that required full-field investigations twice before. I've never seen a circumstance where I learned one week ago today that I was being selected for secretary of labor. The first contact I had from the transition office was on December 19th.
There was really no time for the normal vetting. I think if we had had a normal vetting process, if Florida hadn't taken place the way it did and pushed the election back so far, we would have had a normal vetting process when these things would have been discussed, would have come out in the course of conversations, and would have solved everybody's problems. And my guess is that if they'd come out in that way, that they probably would have gone ahead with the nomination and we would not be having this conversation today.
BLITZER: Now you say that you decided you were becoming a distraction, but others are saying in effect that in the way this game in Washington is played, that you were pushed, that you were encouraged to come to this decision today.
CHAVEZ: I don't think I was encouraged to come to this decision. First of all, you've known me a long time. It's very hard to push Linda Chavez. That may be one of my problems in life, is that, you know, I make up my own mind about things.
BLITZER: But did anybody close to the president-elect, any of his advisers, any of his friends, Republican big-wigs...
BLITZER: ... say to you, Linda, this is uphill struggle?
CHAVEZ: Absolutely not, not a single person. But I've also been around this town long enough to know that when nobody is calling you and saying, hang in there, that that isn't a great signal either.
BLITZER: So you were getting the message by the thunderous silence, if you will?
CHAVEZ: I felt that they were concerned this was a distraction. It wasn't that anybody told me that, Wolf. I have pretty good political antennae, and I made the decision on my own. But I also felt that one of the things that really didn't serve me well is that I was silent. From Saturday afternoon, late in the afternoon, when I learned about this, until today, I was constantly told, don't talk to the press.
I thought I had a pretty good story to tell. I thought the story about my life and what I've done over it and how I've helped people -- most of them legal immigrants or refugees -- but I've helped a number of people in very similar circumstances to Marta's. And I thought it was a great story, and I...
BLITZER: Marta Mercado being the woman, the illegal immigrant.
CHAVEZ: Right, right.
And I thought it was a good story and I wasn't being allowed to tell it, and that was frustrating to me.
BLITZER: The story is out there, a suggestion that you spoke, you contacted your neighbor -- I believe her name is Margaret Whistler (ph). And the -- the -- I guess the allegation is, the suggestion is that you were trying to shade her, move her into some sort of common story about the relationship you had with Marta Mercado?
CHAVEZ: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. I did call Peggy. I did call her when may name, when it was clear when I was being considered for the job, long before I was chosen, in this very short period. And I called her in part to refresh my memory.
I was concerned, frankly, about whether or not she was going to go to the press. She was very supportive and talked a lot about the things that she didn't believe had happened rightly with Zoe Baird and with Kimba Wood.
I said to her -- she didn't seem to understand why it was, I would think, this would ever even be an issue. I told her that if the FBI came to talk to her, as I assumed they would, that she should tell the truth. I don't need to tell her that. She's an attorney. I would always caution anybody to tell the truth when asked a direct question by the FBI. Of course, you tell the truth.
BLITZER: Now you suggested at the news conference today that you suspected from day one that Marta Mercado was an illegal immigrant.
CHAVEZ: That's right, and I told them that.
BLITZER: But if you were -- if you were harboring an illegal immigrant, isn't that a violation of the law?
CHAVEZ: No, no, it's not. And actually, I talked to former general counsels of the INS, one of whom actually has talked to two people who served in that position in the Clinton administration. Absolutely not.
Harboring an illegal alien is a term of art. It is a legal term. It requires that you be concealing the person. It requires that you have brought them to the country, that you have imported them illegally into the country, given them some sort of monetary compensation to come in, or that you have been paid monetary compensation to bring them in.
They are very specific terms that must be met. I did not meet any of those terms.
I have done nothing illegal. I did nothing illegal in letting Marta live with me and providing her help. BLITZER: And the money that you gave Marta Mercado over the year, whatever, how long did she actually live with you?
CHAVEZ: She thinks it was about two years. I had thought it was about a year, but she thinks it was about two years, and I would trust her recollection over mine.
BLITZER: And how much --- do you have any idea how much money you gave her over that period of time?
CHAVEZ: It was -- I think it was probably a few thousand dollars. It certainly was many hundreds of dollars. But again, I've done that for many people. Two of the children that I had with me today, I paid for their parochial education for the last five years. I've given that family money. I was given money as a child. I was helped out as a child, and I've tried to do the same thing for other people.
BLITZER: OK. Linda Chavez, we have some more questions to ask you. Stand by. We're going to take a quick break.
When we come back, we'll take a look at Linda Chavez and we'll ask her about allegations of hypocrisy in the way she's dealt with this matter. Stay with us.
BLITZER: She's the woman at the center of a political storm here in Washington. We're continuing our conversation with Linda Chavez, who today withdrew her name as President-elect George W. Bush's labor secretary.
I want to get the acquisition of hypocrisy in a second, but the silence, the silent treatment you got these past few days. Some say you were hung out to dry. You must be disappointed?
CHAVEZ: Well, the only thing that disappoints me is that this is a transition and a campaign that has had to deal with similar kinds of problems. I mean, there was the DUI story at the end of the campaign, there were a lot of people who rushed into support the campaign at that point.
I think it is important when you have these kinds of incidents to try to give support, and I feel that there was a little bit of a double-standard.
BLITZER: So what does that say about the president-elect and his advisers?
CHAVEZ: I don't think it says anything about the president- elect. George W. Bush is going to be a great president. He is an absolutely wonderful man. I am amazed that he selected me in the first place. I think it took a lot of guts for him to do that, because he knew he was going to get hit when he selected me. I think that really showed a great amount of strength on his part. I do think that there's some inexperience in some of the folks dealing with these things. They're not all Washington hands, and I think it could have been handled better.
BLITZER: You know, in 1993, there was an incident involving Zoe Baird, who was President Clinton's nominee to be the attorney general. And you were on "MacNeil-Lehrer, The NewsHour," on December 23rd, 1993. Listen to what you said at that time about that nominee.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHAVEZ: I think most of the American people were upset during the Zoe Baird nomination that she had hired an illegal alien. That was what upset them more than the fact that she did not pay Social Security taxes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Now that has sparked accusations of hypocrisy on your part.
CHAVEZ: Not at all, Wolf. First of all, I was being an analyst there. What I was reporting was what the American people were responding to.
I've done a lot of writing and a lot of speaking about immigration issues, and I will tell you I am a very pro-immigrant advocate. But the American public is very divided on immigration and the American public is very anti-illegal alien. You're talking about just a couple of years before Proposition 187 in California that stopped all benefits to illegal aliens.
I wasn't speaking what Linda Chavez said. What I said is what upset the American people.
I was speaking as an analyst. I think I was correctly analyzing that situation. I have been very consistent in my criticisms of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. I've written about that for many, many years. I'm very consistent in believing that we ought to welcome more people to this country, that we ought to give them the opportunity to work here, that we ought to make temporary visas available, work permits available for people who want to stay here a few years.
I really think that I've been quite consistent and not hypocritical at all.
BLITZER: You know, when I was listening to your statement earlier today at the news conference, one part of it reminded me -- reminded me of something that the late White House deputy counsel Vince Foster wrote in his suicide note. You remember, I'm sure you've been around Washington for a long time.
He wrote something to the effect that "Ruining people is considered sport here in Washington." Today, you spoke about a search-and-destroy mission aimed against you. The question is this: Who searched and who destroyed? Who sought, did the search for you, and sought to destroy you?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think there was a whole sort of confluence of groups involved. I think organized labor, I think quite mistakenly, somehow thought that I was going to be their worst nemesis. I had a very nice talk with John Sweeney this morning, by the way, and I don't think...
BLITZER: President of the AFL-CIO.
CHAVEZ: President of the AFL-CIO. I don't think that would have been the case. I think I would have actually been very helpful in trying to bridge a gap that exists between the Republican Party and organized labor.
But I think that perceptions get set in stone. I was considered this, you know, hard-right woman. I don't think that's an accurate description of me. And I think it sort of takes on a life of its own.
It's an effort to continue the election by other means, and I think what we're seeing now -- and by the way, I'm only the first person. I can tell you John Ashcroft is going to face much worse than I have. Gale Norton may face worse than I have. Even Christine Todd Whitman, who is considered a moderate, may face worse than I have.
I think this really is an attempt to not let Florida go without retribution, and I think they're going to be out to get George W. Bush's nominees.
BLITZER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) only organized labor or other...
CHAVEZ: No. It's going to be other groups. It's going to be a lot of groups. And I think the media plays a very, very strong role in all of this.
There has been some implication that the media was not just part of reporting the story, but was in fact involved in the story.
BLITZER: What is that implication?
CHAVEZ: Well, there was a report that ABC was involved in getting this information out. Now, it's been denied to me -- and I hope that's true -- but that this story didn't just happen, that the media itself helped feed this story, that they were apart of the story, not just reporting story.
BLITZER: Very briefly -- we only have a few seconds -- what's next for Linda Chavez?
CHAVEZ: Repealing the Immigration Reform and Control Act -- that probably ought to be my first objective. I have a very happy life. I'm a syndicated columnist. I've going to continue writing my syndicated column. I'm the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. That's going to continue. I'm going to continue to speak, and I'm going to continue to take a part in issues that are important to me.
BLITZER: Linda Chavez, I know these have been difficult days for you and it's been a difficult day today. Thanks for spending a little time with us here on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS.
BLITZER: Thank you.