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Crossfire

Senator Clinton Gets Pulled Into Presidential Pardon Scandal

Aired February 22, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: ... start of the day, after last night's revelations that Hugh Rodham, best known as Hillary Clinton's brother, was paid $400,000 to secure a presidential pardon and commutation for two convicted felons.

At an afternoon news conference in Washington, Senator Clinton insisted that while she was "heartbroken" and "disappointed" by her brother's behavior, she had nothing to do with it. But the questions didn't end there.

It turns out that Mrs. Clinton's campaign treasurer, William Cunningham, also took money to help secure a couple of pardons. Hillary Clinton said she didn't know anything about that, either. That didn't calm the fears of some on Capitol Hill. Two members of Congress: Dan Burton and Arlen Specter, who were already investigating the pardon controversy, are vowing to get to the new allegations.

Could the investigations backfire, turning the Clintons once again from villains to victims? Should the G.O.P. take President Bush's advice and move on? Or does justice demand answers?

Congressman Marty Meehan will join us in just a moment -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: So we will start with former congressman Rick Lazio.

Rick, good to see you.

RICK LAZIO: Bill, good to be on, also.

PRESS: Thank you. Your former opponent, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton made her first statements today on this whole pardon flap. She gave an extraordinary news conference on Capitol Hill, in which she said, she was upset at both her brother and her husband; that she didn't know anything about money being given to her brother about these pardons.

And here is how she put it in her own words, if you just listen for a second:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I knew nothing about my brother's involvement in these pardons; I knew nothing about his taking money for his involvement. I had no knowledge of that whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: She also added, by the way, that if she had known, she might have been able to stop them. So my question to you is, No. 1, do you accept her denial, and No. 2, would you agree that if finger of blame is to be pointed anywhere for these pardons, which nobody is defending, but that the finger blame should not be pointed at her?

RICK LAZIO (R), FORMER NEW YORK SENATE CANDIDATE: I'd say, first of all, Mrs. Clinton said that she didn't know anything about Whitewater; didn't know anything about the Rose law firm billings; didn't know anything about the Travelgate firings; didn't know how those files ended up on her dining room table. I think it's very difficult to take on face value, anything that is being said right now.

The greatest casualty in this, though, really, is the public trust. Forget about what impact this might have on Bill Clinton's legacy or on Hillary Clinton's career. The casualty here is that people are going to be assuming that people in public office are not going to live up to higher standards. They are going to believe what I think Bill and Hillary Clinton want to us to believe which is, that the only ethical standard that's relevant is can you prove a criminal case against me? I think the people want a lot more than that.

PRESS: Well, I'm glad you mentioned those other instances, because, in fact, you and others have accused her of lying about Whitewater; lying about the Rose law firm; lying about Monica; lying about the travel office; never proved one thing. And now you are accusing her of lying again. Don't you think it's pretty obvious that her brother set her up? Her brother didn't want her to know because he knew she would raise hell if she knew.

LAZIO: You'd really have to be living in a bubble to believe that the "understanding" that they had with the folks in New Square -- the Hasidic community -- where, all of the sudden, she ended up with 98 percent of the vote and pardons were forthcoming after that, that she didn't know anything about that. That was another thing...

PRESS: What are you accusing her of?

LAZIO: No. 2, she didn't know anything about the furniture that left the White House that was transferred to her personal home -- didn't know anything about that; made sure she got her $8 million book advance right before she would have been precluded from taking that, according to Senate rules.

What kind of public official do you want to be? Do you want to set a high ethical standard that will say to children, I can be a role model to you; and say to the American people, the integrity and character matter -- that's why trust and integrity and character were the cornerstone of our campaign, precisely for the reasons that we have seen for the last couple weeks.

So when you say, did she know that her brother was involved in pardons; and that her treasurer of her campaign was involved in pardons; and that her campaign was advantaged by these series of pardons, as well as the pardons effecting the Hasidic community? I think there's some credibility issues here.

PRESS: The campaign is over. Just a second, Tucker. The campaign's over, Congressman. That's very serious talk you're saying there. What, specifically, do you charge her of in the Hasidic community? What did she do wrong there? What did she do illegal? Be specific.

LAZIO: I'm saying, that if you want to establish the ethical or moral standard that, in order for somebody to be assumed to not be -- beheld to that standard, that you have to prove a criminal case against them, then you are in the wrong business if you are in public life.

Frankly, the people in that community said to me when I was campaigning, this community: we like you, our people believe in the things that you believe in, this community is not not going to be available to you.

CARLSON: That's right. You don't need to prove a crime to show sleazy behavior.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Let me confess that I misidentified William Cunningham, calling him the campaign manager, when, of course, he was the treasurer. Now, I think you'll agree, that this is a delightful story in every way. But there's a problem and that is, the Republicans will get into it. So, here you have Dan Burton jumping in; and Arlen Specter jumping in; and this gives Democrats -- defenders of the Clintons -- an opportunity to say, ooh, look, there are the Clinton- haters again.

LAZIO: Yes, but they also have Mary Jo White, who was the Clinton appointee as U.S. Attorney, who's opening her own criminal inquiry into whether or not a law was broken in conjunction with the Rich pardon.

You also have people like former president Jimmy Carter who has called this disgraceful. You have his chief of staff -- a Democrat -- Hamilton Jordan, calling both the former president and the senator hucksters, "self-absorbed hucksters." This isn't about Republican versus Democrat; isn't about liberal versus conservative; it's about whether or not you believe that our public officials should be people of character and integrity.

CARLSON: And we all believe that. We are joined now by Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts.

Congressman Meehan, thanks for joining us.

REP. MARTIN MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Delighted.

CARLSON: Let's say we accept at face value the line that Hugh Rodham never spoke to the Clintons. You still have the scenario where these two guys -- one pardoned, one sentenced commuted -- simply because they were represented by the brother-in-law of the president; and it strikes me. This gets to the heart of the defense that Democrats have always made of Clinton. Look, he has a creepy personal life, perhaps, but he has done a good job as president. But taking cues from your underemployed brother-in-law as to who ought to be pardoned or whose sentence ought to be commuted. This is not an impressive job performance here. He's done a bad job...

MEEHAN: Well, first of all, there isn't evidence that the pardon was granted because of Hugh Rodham. But on its face, it's a conflict of interest. Hugh Rodham never, ever should have taken a case like that. It's a clear conflict of interest.

The other thing is: he's a lawyer. He was the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate from Florida. He should have known better, so, no one can accuse Hugh Rodham's behavior here; we are just going to have to look at the facts and conduct an inquiry to determine who knew what and when they knew it. But the whole thing, I would agree, has been disgraceful.

CARLSON: Well, let me give you another example where we do know where the pardons originated and that is, with Jann Wenner who is the publisher, of course, of "Rolling Stone" Magazine. During an interview he was conducting of Bill Clinton, he said, hey, I have a dozen or so drug offenders that I'm concerned about. Why don't you pardon them? And Bill Clinton did. So, here you have the president of the United States taking his pardon cues from this flaky magazine publisher. Is this acceptable behavior for a president?

MEEHAN: Look, I think the Rich pardon and Hugh Rodham collecting $400,000 in fees is unacceptable; and merits an inquiry. The bottom line here, though, is, this administration is over. President Bush has said let's move forward. Let's move forward with an agenda to try to provide prescription drug coverage for seniors; with an agenda to give a tax cut to Americans. We really should be looking forward rather than backwards. I think Democrats and Republicans agree, that the pardon mess is inexcusable and is disgraceful.

PRESS: Congressman Lazio, I can still call you a Congressman, can't I? Let's move to the brother to the campaign treasurer, Mr. Cunningham. Not so much is known about this -- I checked today. He is a lawyer that does some pardon work. He was asked to represent these two Arkansas businessmen, they're Republicans. They served some time for tax fraud. He did the paperwork, he sent the paperwork to the Justice Department, for which he received $4,000. Wouldn't you agree there's, like, no issue here?

LAZIO: I would agree that there is something else to the story. When you have two people from Arkansas who are pursuing a pardon strategy and then link up with the treasurer of Hillary Clinton's campaign; and then, all of the sudden, over a couple-day period -- like two days -- this pardon materializes out of thin air; then I think this is something worth looking in to.

I mean, people want to know that there is not a dual system of justice; one for the rich and powerful and one for everybody else. It's incredibly unfair for the poor, inner city person who gets caught of tax evasion or running drugs -- for them to be stuck in prison for years and years and years,where somebody who gets effectively taken care of or who knows somebody powerful and knows somebody in the Clinton campaigns or knows somebody in the White House or hires a former chief of staff there, that because of that influence -- because of that access, all of a sudden, they have special treatment.

PRESS: Marty, go ahead.

MEEHAN: Rick, should we change the Constitution so that the pardon system isn't in effect? Obviously, there have been pardons in the past that have been controversial -- would you favor changing the Constitution?

LAZIO: You know, Marty, no, I wouldn't. What I'm saying is, just because you have an absolute power, doesn't mean it can't get savaged or can't be abused. When it does get abused, it's like abusing the public trust. If you believe, as I do -- when I know you do -- that the public trust is at the core of public service, then you don't tolerate things like this; and you put a light on it and you let the sun shine in; and you say, even though a mistake was made or a tragedy occurred in the past, because of a violation in that trust, we will never allow it again. We will be smarter than this next time. We're not going to be dupes.

MEEHAN: Well, maybe, what we need to do is change the Constitution so there isn't this carte blanche relative to pardons. The fact is, even though the president has the option of conferring with the Justice Department, he doesn't have to. So maybe we need to look at this whole process. I think the bottom line here is, there should be an inquiry, but we need to move on as a country. It really is time to deal with the issues we need to deal with.

LAZIO: This was even worse than not just consulting with the Department of Justice. In many of these cases, the Department of Justice actually came out against these things; that there was evidence that there was ongoing criminal activity by some of people that got pardoned; that there was actually no remorse.

There was a situation on one of the people who received a pardon, where they were involved -- they thought a conspiracy to smuggle in 800 pounds of cocaine into Los Angeles. What kind of message is that on drugs?

PRESS: I want to go back to the one that I asked you about, that you keep skirting away from. The Department of Justice OK'd these pardons. This is the one regarding Mr. Cunningham. You know Anthony -- how do you pronounce his name?

LAZIO: You're talking about my campaign treasurer? Yes. Anthony Piccirillo. PRESS: Piccirillo. So what are you saying? Because this guy was Hillary's campaign treasurer, he has to shut down his law firm? I mean, if you had been elected...

(CROSSTALK)

LAZIO: We are not living in a bubble here.

PRESS: What did he do wrong?

LAZIO: We're not living in a bubble here. This isn't an isolation. The pattern is what's important here; the fact that you have this ethical tin ear over and over and over again. It's not just these two people that Hillary Clinton campaign treasurer was involved in, which I find remarkable in itself. You'd think that that person, being the treasurer for the campaign, would not want to jeopardize the reputation of the person that he tried to help, or the president. He says, by the way, he's got no relationship with the president; he only has a relationship with Senator Clinton. So, on top of...

PRESS: He said he never talked to her about it, so what did he do wrong?

LAZIO: Here what's happened: you have situation where Bill and Hillary Clinton don't know anything about any external pressure for the Rich pardon. They don't anything about any external pressure, in terms of the New Square Hasidic community; they don't know anything about the situation. It's just completely incredible, I think, for most thinking Americans.

PRESS: All right, we have to take a break. When we come back, no surprise. More hearings on Capitol Hill. Will former president Clinton be called to testify? We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. No matter how much President Bush wants us to talk about tax cuts and stop talking about those Clinton pardons, it's hard to talk about anything else; and it's hard for Congress, too. No surprise, the latest news of Hillary's brother's involvement has sparked additional inquiries from Dan Burton and Arlen Specter. But will it really go anywhere? Or is it all just political puffery?

Our debate tonight with former Republican congressman Rick Lazio, of New York; and current Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan, of Massachusetts up in Boston -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Congressman Meehan, let's pretend, just for fun, that we believe Hillary Clinton when she says she had no idea that her brother or her campaign treasurer were both getting paid to influence her husband. Shouldn't she have known this? I mean, she's a senator now. She's going to have to be on guard against all the relatives, and, apparently, employees, who are going to be potentially taking money to influence her. I mean, shouldn't she be on top of this? MEEHAN: Well, I think as a senator, she probably will be. The fact is, she was a first lady at the time, getting ready to get into her new duties. Look, we will see where the evidence leads with regard to that, but I have no reason to believe that she knew who was involved or what the details were. She had just finished a tough campaign for the United States Senate. And then on her way to the Senate.

I think it is believable that she wouldn't know about it. I think the question is, what will we do to correct this process for the future? And if people are serious about having a competent investigation, maybe we should leave it to the professionals to conduct the investigation, and not have another round of a circus. I'm not opposed to Dan Burton having another hearing; but is anyone, in the country -- is it going to have credibility -- is anyone going to really think that Dan is capable of finding the facts here?

CARLSON: Well, that depends on what you, Congressman. That's my next question. I mean, all these Democrats are falling all over themselves to find new adjectives to describe their revulsion. But how many of them are encouraging; for instance, President Clinton to go and testify before Congressional committee or encouraging David Kendall, for instance, to release all the names of the donors to the Clinton library. Why don't you do that? That would help.

MEEHAN: Well, first of all, I think the president could go testify, or at least answer questions; he could get submitted to him in advance of the committee; I would recommend that he cooperate fully with any investigation by a competent U.S. Attorney's office which is a lot different than Dan Burton's hearings.

I mean, I think if you really want to the bottom of this, this should be a competent investigation into the facts.

PRESS: Congressman.

LAZIO: Yes.

PRESS: Before I get to your first question, I've just got something I need to do here, which concerns one of your former Congressmen -- one of your former colleagues, rather, Congressman Javier Pasera. I'm amused at how many people who used to stand tall are now running for the high grass. And he's one of them.

Last night, I included his name on a list of people who I'd asked the president to commute the sentence of Carlos Vignali, this drug dealer in L.A.

LAZIO: Right.

PRESS: Our congressman called today, asked for a clarification. I want to make that very quickly.

Here's a copy of the letter to the president, his letter, where he mentioned -- starts out by mentioning that the man is seeking commutation and he says -- quote -- "I want to add my voice to those recommending a full evaluation of the case."

Secondly, Congressman Pasera called the White House on January 19 that evening, the night before Bill Clinton left office, to check on the status of the commutation.

And thirdly, "The New York Times" this morning reported that, according to the "L.A. Times," Vignali's father had given $11,000 over the last three years to Mr. Pasera's campaign. So I'm happy to make that clarification.

Now, I want to pick up...

LAZIO: Let me just make one point, if I can, about...

PRESS: Not about that.

LAZIO: No, no, not about that, but about what Marty was saying about making some changes in the pardon law and even campaign finance reform, which he was involved in and I was involved in.

I don't care what changes you make. All that is a sham if you don't have people who have integrity, you know, a basic -- a basically good ethical compass, because you're always going to find a way to gain in the system if that's where you want go.

PRESS: But you made that point.

I want to ask you about these hearings, though. I mean, you know that Dan Burton and Arlen Specter, they will jump at any chance. Bill Clinton could bend down and tie his shoelaces and they would have a hearing about it. I mean, these -- they're not going to amend the Constitution. They're not going to take the power away. There's going to be no legislation coming out of these hearings.

I mean, if you were still in the Congress, wouldn't you just tell them: Hey, guys, just do what the president says and move on to legislation and drop this thing?

LAZIO: I think the real inquiry to watch is Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney -- the Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney who's opening up a criminal inquiry into the Rich pardon.

And it's completely appropriate for people on both sides of the aisle, for people from different ideological backgrounds to say: You know what, this stinks. It ought to be investigated. We ought to have sunshine in here. People ought not to tolerate it. And if it damages somebody's reputation now because they did the wrong thing, maybe it will save us from other heartache down the road. Maybe it will be a way of actually precluding us from reliving this chapter.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Marty Meehan, I'm sorry, we are going have to --

CARLSON: Next question.

PRESS: OK.

MEEHAN: Congress wouldn't have to -- Congress wouldn't have to have a circus. We could just have a professional prosecutor conduct the interview.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: And no more...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: We can continue this discussion and doubtless, we will.

Congressman Marty Meehan, former Congressman Rick Lazio, thank you both.

Bill Press and I will be back in a moment to decide what to do with the Clintons in our closing comments.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: You know, Bill, I'm always looking for ways to improve the Democratic Party, as you know. And the first...

PRESS: Oh, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Well, the first thing Democrats ought to do -- one brave Democrat ought to come forward and go directly to Bill Clinton and say: Listen, pal, it's time for you to leave the stage. Move to Bikini atoll for a decade or two. Get out of limelight. You're wrecking our party.

And I hope you're the man to do it.

PRESS: Well, you know what? Actually, I thought there was a woman today who came pretty close to doing that.

(LAUGHTER)

I mean, I thought when Hillary Rodham Clinton stood up there today, basically what she was saying was: Get out of my way, buster, I'm trying to do a job for the people of New York. All I'm doing is answering questions about you. I don't want to talk to my brother. I don't want to talk to my husband. It ain't -- I didn't do anything wrong. Talk to them and get out of their way.

I thought she was pretty strong.

CARLSON: Yes, she did. She retreated into full victim mode: The men are being mean to me again. My campaign treasurer, my husband, my brother. I didn't know what any of them were doing. It happened to me. PRESS: No, it wasn't victim mode. I think she was just laying it out there.

Look, I would agree, and I've said this over and over again. I mean, I think these pardons stunk. I think the president acted with very -- in very poor judgment. But the fact is you're not going to take it away from him, Tucker, and there's nothing we can do about it. And these guys up on Capitol Hill just continue to hold these hearings. It's pure politics.

CARLSON: Bottom line: Mrs. Clinton, she had no idea. She was shocked. Shocked!

PRESS: I believe that. From the left, I'm Bill Press.

You haven't seen the last of us because Tucker and I are back on "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:30.

CARLSON: With Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico.

And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson.

Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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