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Should Janet Reno Name a Special Counsel to Investigate Al Gore?

Aired June 23, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, Janet Reno is asked, once again, to name a special counsel to investigate fund raising by Al Gore. Will she, should she, and what will be the impact on Gore's presidential campaign?


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have admitted that I made mistakes in fund raising, but I want the American people to know I have always told the truth about this matter.


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in San Diego, Chuck LaBella, former Justice Department campaign finance task force chief, and later, Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and an adviser to the Gore campaign, and Republican National Committee communications director Cliff May.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The smoldering fund-raising scandal plaguing the vice president for four years ignited anew yesterday with the revelation that the latest Justice Department task force chief recommended Gore's investigation be handed over to an outside counsel.

Robert Conrad's recommendation to Janet Reno marks the third referral for an independent look at Gore's 1996 fund-raising activities and whether he provided false testimony about them. Though Conrad's investigation focused for the first time on the infamous Buddhist temple even, Gore claimed this latest report is the same old thing and released 150 pages of transcripts from his Justice Department interrogation.


GORE: I think the truth is -- is my friend in this. The full -- the truth -- the full truth and nothing but the truth.


MATALIN: Democrats are livid over what they say is a politically motivated leak. Janet Reno vows to keep politics out of her latest deliberations.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: The most important thing for any investigation, particularly in this time of year, is that we conduct an investigation the right way: not in the headlines, not with pressure from people who may have differing views, but just do it right.


MATALIN: And yet another disruption to Gore's campaign couldn't come at a worse time. New polls show him trailing Bush 52 to 40, the widest margin in months.

So tonight, the seemingly unending saga of investigations. What are Janet Reno's options? Is there anything new in Conrad's report? And as always, what will be the political fallout for Al Gore? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Mr. LaBella, thanks you for joining us. I'm trying hard to believe that there's no politics in any of this. But why shouldn't I be suspicious and the American people be suspicious when the first word of this new recommendation comes not from Janet Reno, not from the Justice Department, from Republican Clinton Senator Arlen Specter?

CHUCK LABELLA, FORMER CHIEF, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT CAMPAIGN FINANCING TASK FORCE: Well, I think you have to get beyond the source of the information. The fact is the information is genuine. I think you have to deal with the information on the merits.

You know, clearly, you know, in Washington, things are politically motivated all the time. So who is to say what the motivations are? And I guess they're pretty obvious in this situation.

But the fact is that the report's the report, the memo's the memo, and the facts are the facts, and the prosecutor is the prosecutor.

PRESS: Well, let's get to the facts.


PRESS: I want to ask you, when's the last time you spoke with Robert Conrad and what new evidence does he have that you did not have when you wrote your memo?

LABELLA: I think that Conrad is -- from what I can tell from the press reports...

PRESS: Have you talked to him?

LABELLA: I have talked to him, yes. Yes.

PRESS: Since April 18th?

LABELLA: Yes. Since April 18th.

PRESS: OK. So what new evidence does he have that you didn't have?

LABELLA: He would never tell me what evidence he has. We weren't talking about substantive matters. We were talking about logistic matters and other things. And he asked my advice with respect to testifying in front of the Senate, because I've been there before. I've been -- I was a prosecutor, and I was in his exact posture. And I gave him my best advice, you know...


LABELLA: ... just look them in the eye and tell them what you can tell them, and don't tell them what you can't tell them, and don't be bullied...


LABELLA: ... and your obligation is to -- is to the interest of justice, and you do what will preserve the integrity of the investigations.

PRESS: Now, a couple of months ago on "Meet the Press," you were -- of course, you made your recommendation to Janet Reno.


PRESS: She heard from others in the Justice Department to go the other way.


PRESS: She chose not to follow your advice. A couple of months ago on "Meet the Press" you said of the attorney general -- quote -- "I really don't believe the attorney general in any way, shape or form was protecting by anybody, or anybody else at the Justice Department was politically protecting anybody."

First, just a quick question: Do you still believe that?

LABELLA: Yes, I do. I mean, I said it then and I still believe it.


LABELLA: You know, there are other agendas, and I think they're bureaucratic agendas. But I don't think anybody was really politically motivated, not to my knowledge anyway.

PRESS: Then wouldn't -- then wouldn't you have to say, without substantial new evidence since your recommendation, there's no way that Janet Reno will appoint or should appoint a special counsel in this particular case? LABELLA: I think that if we are to learn from history she is going to look at the same analysis -- well, it's not the same analysis. That's the point. It's a different analysis, a different timeframe from another prosecutor. And it really is a different event. I mean, there's a subsequent interview, and that prosecutor was reacting to that particular interview: not basically just the evidence that we had uncovered, but additional statements that were made in the transcript that's been released today and the implications of those upon -- those statements upon the evidence that's already been uncovered.

So I mean, there is -- there is new developments. I don't know if it's new evidence. But I mean, if you're asking me to predict, I guess I'd have to agree with you that there's probably not going to be the appointment of a special counsel, because I don't think...

MATALIN: Well, Mr. LaBella...


MATALIN: Well, Mr. LaBella, you do not have to agree with Bill Press. We don't know.


PRESS: Yes, you do. It's required on this show.

MATALIN: I want to ask you about the nature of the -- the environment under which Robert Conrad was working...


MATALIN: ... because I'm seeing some similarities here. These press reports say that other Justice Department officials said he was asked not to submit his thoughts in writing. This seems particularly inefficient to me in a bureaucracy as big as the Department of Justice.

What's the explanation for being asked not to put his recommendations in writing?

LABELLA: Well, I can tell you I've been there before and I know what he's up against. I was a field prosecutor. He is a field prosecutor. We -- we do things differently. We do things without bureaucratic agendas and we do things on the merits.

I think what's happening, you're going to see over the next couple of days and weeks, his -- his report, his memo, whatever it is, is going to be sliced and diced as he is going to be sliced and diced and isolated in the Department of Justice.

I mean, I believe that. I mean, I became radioactive when I put pen to paper and handed in a report that said things outloud that people felt uncomfortable being said outloud. And I can truly -- not to paraphrase the president -- but I can feel his pain, because I've been there and I know what he's going to go through. MATALIN: Well, let's talk about his pain some more...


MATALIN: ... because it's not like any of you prosecutors are members of the vast right-wing conspiracy.


MATALIN: He said something strikingly similar to what you said, that he met with resistance by his superiors, that he couldn't meet with his superiors. And isn't it true that you were never even able to speak with Janet Reno after your recommendations?

How can anybody make any -- take any action on recommendations about which they never meet to discuss?

LABELLA: I mean, we never -- we never had a substantive conversation, a real in-depth substantive conversation about my report. But that's the nature of the Department of Justice as it exists now. It's the bureaucratic people are coming out. The bureaucratic professionals are coming out, and they're going to slice and dice him. And they're going to put up every -- every bureaucratic argument, every disagreement that they can, and they're going to put up every hurdle for him to get to the -- to get to the goal line. And that's what they do.

MATALIN: Here's my final question, Mr. LaBella.


MATALIN: Do you think this attorney general can adequately and properly investigate her boss? There's no independent counsel statute now. It's a special counsel. There's a conflict of interest here. Do you think she can properly investigate Al Gore?

LABELLA: No, I think -- it has to be a separate counsel. It has to be an independent or a special counsel now under the new regulations of the Department of Justice. It really has to be.

PRESS: OK, Mr. LaBella, thank you very much for joining us on CROSSFIRE this evening.

LABELLA: Thank you.

PRESS: I'm sure we'll see you again on the show.

And when we come back, we're going to take a break here, because obviously this recommendation is a huge bombshell in the 2000 campaign. When we come back, we'll assess how big a problem this is for Al Gore with a Republican and a Democratic consultant.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Question: Who's the last person elected president while under investigation by a special counsel? Answer: Bill Clinton. But could Al Gore survive with the same millstone around his neck, and is there any here here or are these just the same old tired Republican charges?

Now assessing the political fallout of the call for a special prosecutor for Al Gore with Cliff May, communications director of the Republican National Committee -- needless to say, a Bush supporter -- and Ron Klain., former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and adviser now to the Gore 2000 campaign -- Mary.

MATALIN: Ron, showing your political prowess, the campaign did a massive document dump this afternoon, on a Friday afternoon, 150 pages following scandal-meister Lanny Davis' recommendation. And this is what the vice president had to say about that Buddhist temple event, where $65,000 was illegally raised.

Quote: "The very fact that the members of a finance-related event were present at the event was the only connection that I had to the possibility that it was finance-related. But I did not know that it was a fund-raiser and I do not to this day know that it was a fund- raiser." He said this to Conrad in his April 19th.

Now, here's a list of people or -- people that did know because of existing documents and/or testimony: the Secret Service, the National Security Council, the White House staff, the vice president's staff, the DNC staff, the two organizers -- good friends of the vice president's, Maria Hsia and John Huang -- and the attendees at the fund-raiser, who say that fund raising was discussed from the lectern in the presence of the vice president.

Now, are you expecting...

RON KLAIN, GORE ADVISER: No, that's not...

MATALIN: Now, do you expect us to believe this intellectually superior man missed all of these notes that it was a fund-raiser?

KLAIN: Look, that's not true. And the one fact that is indisputably true is that no one has testified that the vice president was told it was a fund-raiser, that he knew it was a fund-raiser, or that anything he did the day indicated that. And it's not just the testimony. There was a "Boston Globe" reporter at the event, at the event who confirmed the same thing.

Stewart Taylor (ph), one of the most critical journalists of this administration, wrote an article just today saying -- reaffirming the vice president's account of this as true, consistent, honest, and accurate.

The fact of the matter is, Mary, that I hope everyone does read the 150 pages that came out today, because what it reveals is that there is nothing new here except more of the same garbage from the Republicans, the same sort of investigation that's gone on four years, and still going on. And by the way, in the words of even Mr. LaBella, even Mr. LaBella himself has said that there is no evidence yet that the vice president broke any law.

"The Washington Post" this morning...

MATALIN: Because.

KLAIN: "The Washington Post" this morning said that Mr. Conrad found not even probable cause, not even probable cause...

MATALIN: No, no, no, Ron. Take it easy. Calm down.

KLAIN: ... that the vice president had done anything wrong.

MATALIN: You're doing a great job. Somebody -- some anonymous source said Conrad said that. Earlier up in the report in "The Washington Post" says that Conrad found, took issue with what the president -- what the vice president, never to be president, said in this testimony.

Let me say again, he didn't know it was a fund-raiser. His own personal e-mail referred to the events on that day in California as fund-raisers.

KLAIN: No, his e-mail referred to earlier events that wound up being canceled as fund-raisers. There is still after four years and $40 million of investigation no evidence that Al Gore knew this was a fund-raiser and no evidence that there's anything here but a smear job.

It is an outrage that someone concludes that there is no probable cause of a crime, and yet we're still talking about an independent counsel (sic), and moreover that information gets leaked to one of the vice president's political opponents. That is the sort of law enforcement system they have in Third World countries, not here in the United States.

It is an outrage.

MATALIN: Can I just say it is your -- calm down. It is your Justice Department. It is your pick for the task force head. Every task force chief appointed by Janet Reno and the FBI director -- there are more than three -- their principal deputies -- they're loyalists to Janet Reno -- all of them have come up with the same recommendation except for one of her hatchet men, that there's at a minimum, at a minimum, a conflict of interest.

If you're so -- if you think it's such a smear job, why don't you allow it to go forward and he be exonerated.

KLAIN: I agree. People have found there is a conflict of interest. But let's get to what is the real central issue here. None of them, none of them -- including Mr. LaBella, who was just on this show -- have ever found evidence that the vice president broke any law. That's the most important point. Look, there is a character test here. The character test is for Governor George Bush. He is running around this country saying that he wants to change the politics in Washington, and the character test for him is, is he serious about that, is he going to stand up to this kind of smear job by one of his allies, is he going to really tell the Republicans in Washington that it's time to stop this sort of investigative smear and focus on the campaign, focus on the real issues here?

That's the person whose character is under assault in this situation, Mary.

PRESS: All right, Cliff May, I've got to say something. You know, I'm surprised at you guys. I mean, I expected, you're smarter than this. I expected new stuff. I expected good stuff. I mean, this thing has been investigated by the House, as Ron points out. It's been investigated by the Senate. Al Gore has testified five times under oath about this. I mean, the Justice Department has looked into it at least twice.

How many times are you going to drag out the same old chestnut? Get real.

CLIFF MAY, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Bill, you well know it's not Republicans dragging this out.

PRESS: It is so.

MAY: We're talking about Robert Conrad, a career prosecutor. Now maybe you're going to demonize him, maybe you're going to say terrible things about him. We're talking about Charles LaBella, a career prosecutor. We're talking about Louis Freeh, the head of the FBI. We're talking about Bob Litt, also a career person. These are career people.

This is not coming from the Republicans. This is coming from career people who are saying there is evidence that crimes may have been committed.

Now, let me ask you one thing, and you can answer this if you want as well. Al Gore said, "I made mistakes in the fund raising in 1996." What he hasn't said are what those mistakes were. And is there a possibility - because that's what these guys are saying -- that those mistakes were illegal? And who's going to judge that if the Justice Department won't investigate and an independent counsel can't look into it. Who knows whether his mistakes that he admits making may not have crossed the line into illegalities?

KLAIN: Oh, I think we know that very well, Cliff. He said his mistake was going to that Buddhist temple, that he never should have gone. I think the fact that we're all here tonight is pretty good evidence of that.


MAY: That's the only he made: He went to a temple and he didn't know where he was going. That's it.

KLAIN: He knew where he was going. He didn't know what was going to happen there. And there isn't a scintilla of evidence that suggests to the contrary?

MAY: That's the only mistake. I want to make sure this is clear, because this is news. He has never said what all his mistakes were.

KLAIN: He has said that was a mistake.

MAY: And that was his mistake.

KLAIN: That was certainly one mistake.


MAY: ... mistake...

PRESS: Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!


KLAIN: And more importantly, more importantly, all those people you cite, none of them, none of them, have found evidence the vice president broke the law.

MAY: Because it hasn't been investigated.


PRESS: Wait. Pardon me.


Pardon me. No, it's my turn. It has been investigated. It's been investigated at least twice by the Justice Department. It's been investigated by the House of Representatives. It's been investigated by Fred Thompson, who did not call for an independent counsel.

And then it comes out of the mouth -- you say the Republicans aren't up to this. It comes out of the mouth of Republican Arlen Specter, Gore enemy No. 1, four months before a national election. And you want the American people to believe this is just a coincidence?

MAY: Robert Conrad -- the vast right-wing conspiracy yet again.

Robert Conrad, who says again that there is some new evidence out here, the interview with Al Gore was on April 19th of this year.

PRESS: April 18th.

MAY: The fund-raiser was four years previous. It has taken four years for anybody from this Justice Department to even ask him these questions. Based on the questions, he thinks there is a possibility there was an illegality.

It may have been, as you well know, it may have been a cover-up.

PRESS: Why don't you answer my question?


MAY: Sometimes in Washington, you get in trouble for the cover- up, not for the crime.

PRESS: Every time I mention Specter you mention Conrad. Why don't you answer my question?

MAY: Well...

PRESS: Why is Arlen -- why was here on CNN yesterday announcing this? Why did he have a news conference yesterday announcing this? Why is Arlen Specter the mouthpiece for these charges?

MAY: Well, what does that have to do with these? He's a member of the Judiciary Committee...

PRESS: Has everything to do with it.

MAY: The point -- no. What it has to do with is you have four independent people, FBI director and three prosecutors who are career...

PRESS: Who found no evidence.

MAY: ... who are all saying that there should be a prosecutor to find out if there is anything.

No, they're not saying -- Robert Conrad said in fact and very specifically there is new evidence that suggests it should be...

PRESS: No, he did not.

MAY: But the real point here, the real point here is what we need and what Governor Bush is saying, is we need some integrity at the Justice Department and the White House.

Fred Thompson -- you just mentioned him. He said recently -- and he's a senator you respect -- that the most important mission of the next president of the United States is to clean up the Justice Department and restore a sense of mission.

PRESS: Just very quickly, for the record, according to "The Washington Post" -- Mr. Conrad has not spoken publicly -- what he believes is that there is a conflict to having the Justice Department investigate this. He did not say...

MAY: So there should be a new...

PRESS: He did not say, his recommendation was not based on evidence of any crimes. MAY: On new evidence, according to The New York Times.


MAY: Front page of The New York Times.

MATALIN: It was also reported -- that's exactly right. Punching holes in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) defense. FBI investigators really looking at perjury. This goes to the heart of what Gore's problem is and why he's 12 points behind Bush and why in that same poll he was down 13 points -- more than that -- on trustworthiness. It's not what he did. It's what he said about it. And in every single investigation, in addition to the conflict, there are reports of his possibly providing false testimony to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

KLAIN: Yes, there are -- there are leaks time and again, Mary. And those leaks are investigated and they are found to be that the vice president did nothing wrong. And once again, Mr. Conrad himself finds that there is no evidence that he did anything wrong.

MATALIN: No, he doesn't find that. Stop.


MAY: I've got to say. It is right here in The New York Times, front page, lead piece.

KLAIN: It is time -- it is time...


MATALIN: We get -- we get the last word.

KLAIN: It is time for the Republicans...

MATALIN: No, we get the last word.


Boys, take it out in the green room. When we come back, Bill and I will get the last words. Tough. Hang on.

PRESS: Thank you, guys.


MATALIN: All right. This is what's happened since the vice president's launched his Progress and Prosperity Tour. He's had another staff shakeup. He's had another special counsel mentioned. He's had surging gas prices because of his ridiculous environmental policies and lack of energy policies. He has had more bad polls, and...

(LAUGHTER) But the only good thing that has happened is that he has stolen or adopted two of Bush's signature proposals: to personalize Social Security and to cut taxes. I think the tour is a grand success.

PRESS: I think you're trying to change the subject. The subject is you guys are bringing up these old charges. This old charge -- Buddhist temple, this is as old as all the rumors about bush snorting cocaine.

I mean, listen, unless there is new evidence, there is no way that Janet Reno -- you know this -- is going to appoint a special counsel, and nobody has come up with any new evidence. And she's not going to do it...

MATALIN: You don't know that.

PRESS: ... four months before a national campaign.

MATALIN: You do not know that. And it's my contention that you guys leaked it, because you'd rather have it out now...


... than in October like you did to us in 1992.

PRESS: Yes. Blame it on the Democrats. Oh man, I'm telling you.

From the left -- have a good weekend -- I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Have a joyous weekend and join us next week for more CROSSFIRE.



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