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Burden of Proof

Clinton Pardon Controversy Heads to Capitol Hill Yet Again

Aired February 28, 2001 - 12:30 p.m. ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: A former president waives his executive privilege. A wealthy financier refuses to testify. And Congress chases an e-paper trail. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: The Clinton pardon controversy heads to Capitol Hill again.


REP. DAN BURTON (R-IN), GOVERNMENT REFORM CHMN.: If there was any quid pro quo or money or influence exchanged for the pardons, then that's a criminal offense. That's something that would have to be dealt with by the Justice Department.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D), DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: We learn in law school that what a thing appears is what it is. We've had absolutely no evidence of anything approaching corruption.

REP. JOHN MICA (R), FLORIDA: If there were abuses, they should be uncovered. And we should try to prevent them in the future. If it takes legislation, and it is constitutionally doable, then maybe we should proceed in that way. But I think amending the Constitution is pretty drastic.


ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

Now, tomorrow in Washington, a congressional hearing digs into the Clinton pardon controversy. And the former president has opened the door for testimony from some of his closest White House aides. Clinton has waived his claim to executive privilege. Heading the Capitol Hill witness list are his close confidant Bruce Lindsey, former Chief of Staff John Podesta and former White House counsel Beth Nolan.

Lawmakers will question witnesses about their knowledge of the Marc Rich pardon. Rich has declined a congressional invitation. And he won't be appearing before the House Government Reform Committee. But, meanwhile, a new wrinkle in the Rich case was reported today in "The Washington Post." The paper says a newly discovered e-mail, authored by Rich attorney Jack Quinn, says that former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder advised him to go straight to the White House with his pardon request.

Now, Holder denies it and says it's not true.

Joining us here in our bureau are Nikki Battist (ph), minority chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, Julian Epstein, and Republican Congressman Steven LaTourette of Ohio, member of the Government Reform Committee. In the back: Tom Hagen (ph) and Yvette Figueroa (ph). And also joining us here in Washington is CNN national correspondent Eileen O'Connor.

Well, Eileen, this story moves along quickly -- and even more quicker. Give us the latest.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have the e-mail from Jack Quinn. And it's basically to two attorneys representing Marc Rich. And what it says -- it's dated November 18, 2000.

And it says: "Spoke to him" -- the subject is Eric, as in Eric Holder -- "Spoke to him last night. He says go straight to the White House. Also says timing is good. We should get in soon. We'll elaborate when we speak."

Now, a few days later, Jack Quinn and Eric Holder recall that they had a meeting at the Justice Department. Jack Quinn says, after that meeting, he buttonholed Eric Holder and talked about the pardon for Marc Rich -- the application. Now, Eric Holder says he doesn't quite remember that meeting, but that he knew he was going to be putting in an application to the White House.

He heard about it also later from the White House counsel. And, as you know, there was a phone call from Beth Nolan the final day of the Clinton presidency, January 19, to Eric Holder, where Eric Holder says he was neutral, leaning towards allowing the pardon for Marc Rich.

Now, spokespeople for Jack Quinn say that Beth Nolan has said to him that if it wasn't for Eric Holder's approval that this pardon wouldn't have happened. I've been trying to reach Beth Nolan to see if that squares with her recollection of the conversation. But other White House officials at the time say that there was a lot of discussion about this pardon. The three people that they will be speaking to tomorrow were basically against granting this pardon -- Bruce Lindsey, John Podesta and Beth Nolan -- and that everyone, including Eric Holder, really had the belief that this wasn't going to happen -- this pardon.

And Eric Holder testified to that, saying, because he was a fugitive -- Marc Rich -- he didn't believe the pardon was ever going to happen. And, also, a former senior White House official tells me that he does not believe anyone should be blaming Eric Holder. He says -- quote -- that "The president took responsibility for this in his 'New York Times' op-ed piece, and he didn't lay it off on Eric Holder." This former White House official says that, "I think it is unbecoming of Jack Quinn or anyone else to lay this off on Eric Holder." Tomorrow you are going to hear a lot of testimony from these three senior key White House officials. They were against it, but they are going to clearly lay out what the president has already laid out himself in that op-ed piece: that he was looking at what he thought were the legal merits of the case, what he thought was an overblown indictment of Marc Rich -- and he felt a fair resolution by pardoning Marc Rich on that indictment, but leaving in place the ability of the government to bring a civil case against him, and that Marc Rich would have to waive any kind of defenses to that.

COSSACK: Eileen, let me ask you some questions about Eric Holder, because I think it is important that we make sure that our viewers understand what Eric Holder's position was in this and what he says -- we hear the other side.

Now, Eric Holder has said that Jack Quinn's memo basically does not reflect what happened. I mean, he says that that e-mail isn't true. Isn't that right?

O'CONNOR: He does. I haven't been able to reach him this morning. But, in general, he has said that he was not encouraging Jack Quinn or trying to circumvent the Justice Department's process at all during this. He thought that this pardon would get a review -- and certainly a review by the White House counsel.

Now, remember, Roger Adams, the pardons attorney at the time, Roger, testified that this pardon wouldn't have gone through Justice in any event because Marc Rich was never convicted of any crime. In the normal application process through the Justice Department, Marc Rich would have had to have already been convicted of a crime. So, therefore, it automatically would have had to go to the White House if anyone was ever going to consider it.

COSSACK: But the notion that he was a fugitive, I mean, wouldn't that have been brought to the attention of -- you know, through the Justice Department? I mean, here is a person that is on the Justice Department's most-wanted list. It is hard for me to believe that in fact that kind of individual -- who, you know, everybody knows who he was and what the demand for him was -- that the Justice Department wouldn't have been notified even though he's never been convicted of anything.

Am I -- I mean, he's never been convicted of anything -- well, one reason is because he chose not to come back here and stand trial. And presumably he would he have been acquitted and was presumed innocent. I mean, wouldn't that have been -- gone through the Justice Department?

O'CONNOR: Well, apparently it didn't. I mean, they didn't. And that's one of the complaints. The U.S. attorney in New York, Mary Jo White, has complained bitterly that she didn't know about this. She would have opposed it vociferously.

Now, the White House counsel, Bruce Lindsey -- deputy counsel -- has said that he too opposed this pardon based on the fact that Marc Rich was a fugitive. And he can't opt in and out of the process -- opt out as being a fugitive and opt in to get the pardon.

COSSACK: Right. Right.

O'CONNOR: So, again, a lot of people around the president really felt it wasn't going to happen. And Eric Holder, too, thought -- and has testified to this -- that he didn't think it was going to happen because of the fugitivity -- that Marc Rich was a fugitive.

But also, again, as some officials and sources have told me, you know, the phone call from Beth Nolan -- and Eric Holder has testified to this -- happened to him on the eve of the inauguration. He was worried about security concerns. The following day, he was going to end up acting-attorney general. And he felt that -- he admits that, had he had more information, had he thought about it more, he would have made a different call. The call he made was neutral, leaning towards -- and that is basically his defense.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Some close, personal and White House allies of the former president will be called to testify on Capitol Hill tomorrow. Since the pardon power is absolute, what can be done? Find out when we come back.

Stay with us.


Former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros said former President Clinton pardoned him because "he abhors the extremes of the independent counsels." Cisneros pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was one of the 140 pardoned on Clinton's last day in office.



COSSACK: Tomorrow on Capitol Hill, a House committee will reopen hearings into the Clinton pardon controversy. Taking top billing on the witness list, former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, former White House counsel Beth Nolan, and long-time aide and personal Clinton friend Bruce Lindsey.

Congressman, why do you want those people to testify?

REP. STEVEN LATOURETTE (R-OH), GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE: Well, as a result of the last hearing when we had Jack Quinn, who handled the Rich pardon and took it to the White House and we also had Eric Holder testify a little bit and there was a divergence between their memories.

But clearly you now have a situation where money was given to somebody to give to somebody else, and nobody can quite explain to us how these pardon applications got on President Clinton's desk. And it seems that Beth Nolan, Bruce Lindsey and John Podesta hold the key to that because the president, in his public statements, even though he hasn't come before the press or the Congress, has indicated that his brother-in-law didn't talk to him, Jack Quinn did a little bit.

But clearly these got in the 500 he was reviewing on his last day in office, or last couple of days in office. And we'd like to know who Hugh Rodham talked to, who Jack Quinn talked to, who maybe Roger Clinton talked to. And I think that this is a good first step, what these folks are going to have tomorrow.

COSSACK: I want to follow up what you said earlier, when you said it appears now that money was given to someone to be given to someone else. That's a -- the implications of that statement are very strong.


COSSACK: Be a little more clearer for me what you mean by that.

LATOURETTE: Well, some people are wondering what it is that, you know, we're looking at. The power to pardon is absolute. Are we just bothering President Clinton some more after he's out of office? And the fact of the matter is that there are some potential crimes here, and that is if Marc Rich in Switzerland writes a check to Denise Rich in the United States to give to the Clinton Library or a senatorial campaign or something else, we have a crime. We also have the crime of bribery that is a potential out there.

And we really can't figure out whether it's much ado about nothing or there is something here until we have that trail of money answered and the cast of characters come forward and answer the questions.

The good news today, I'm very happy that President Clinton has released his former employees and said that you don't have to hide behind executive privilege and you can answer the questions tomorrow.

COSSACK: Julian, the argument is made from time to time that, as the congressman alludes to, is that this is -- is this just beating up on President Clinton? And the argument goes like this: Look, the Congress can't -- if there is a crime, it's up to the Justice Department to ferret out crime, not Congress. And, therefore, this is an -- the argument could be, is this an exercise in futility or just beating up on the president -- former president?

JULIAN EPSTEIN, MINORITY CHIEF COUNSEL: Yes, I think that Stan Graham (ph) points out in today's "New York Times" the ability of a congressional committee to do anything in the pardon area, or even investigate, is very limited because investigatory power is limited or ancillary to its legislative power, has no power in this area.

I think if there's a question of quid pro quo -- and I could guarantee -- I'm happy to come back on the program a month from now and prove myself right -- that there won't be any evidence of that. And so if -- but if there were, it would be most appropriately handled by the U.S. attorney.

If there is a desire to look at how money buys influence, how bases weren't touched, well, then I think you have to look at what has -- can only be described as hypocrisy coming from the other side. I mean, the resistance of this committee to look into allegations of money buying influence in a host of legislative matters, whether it's tobacco, whether its guns, whether it's the health insurance industry, is palpable.

Secondly, the resistance of this committee to look at past pardons -- pardons by President Bush, for example, the Pakistani drug smuggler who brought in a million and a half dollars worth of coke -- heroin into this country -- allegations of a Cuban terrorist who Justice Department officials, law enforcement thought was responsible for blowing a plane out of the sky.

COSSACK: All right, let me interrupt you for a second because I want to give the congressman a chance.

Is that relevant? Is it relevant what other presidents have done?

LATOURETTE: I think it's nonsense, first of all. There were investigative committees when President Bush left office, President Ford left office, President Reagan left office. And it reminds me of the argument that we should be concentrating on health care, prescription drug coverage and so on. We have committees in the Congress that take care of that work. This is the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, first of all.

The second part of the argument that's weak, because I've heard it played over and over again, we're all big boys and girls here in Washington, we all take money from people who lobby us on issues. Money gets you in the door. Money will get you my ear or any other member's ear so that you can make your case. Money doesn't guarantee a result. And if there's a member of Congress or the president of the United States has said, if you make a donation to my library and my campaign, I'm going to do what you want; I'm going to pardon your friend, I'm going to write a piece of legislation, then that person probably shouldn't be in office.

So it really is a weak argument.

EPSTEIN: The point is, if we were to show the tobacco industry's contribution to the RNC the day after they got a $50 billion tax break in a budget bill, tax credit, you could create the same fishy smell. There's no desire to investigate into that. If you want to hold the same microscope up to the pardons that President Bush gave, again, to the Pakistani, the Cuban, you can show the same type of disturbing picture.

COSSACK: Well, wait, wait, wait. Julian, let me just jump back at you a second on this. And I -- certainly your argument in terms of coincidence -- you know, there's an old story that there is no such thing as a coincidence, but the notion that somebody gets money and something happens.

But in this case, we have someone who's vested in the Constitution with I think the only power that I know of that the president absolutely has and answers to no one. EPSTEIN: And everybody agrees that he made a mistake in this. Everyone thinks -- I think you'll get everyone to agree that, minimally, this was a lapse of judgment by a president who was operating on fumes, with virtually no sleep in the waning hours of the White House. I think nobody disagrees about that. Nobody raises the issue, of course, that President Bush, I think, has the constitutional power to rescind the pardons. And if they feel so strongly about them, the question might be, why don't they rescind those pardons? So...

COSSACK: I'm not so sure that President Bush does have the constitutional power.

EPSTEIN: I think if you look back, Ulysses Grant rescinded a pardon from Andrew Johnson in 1870, 1871. So I think that authority is there. One might ask the question...

COSSACK: There's also another argument to be made. And the argument should be, I suppose, that, without the finding of quid pro quo, whether or not you should have presidents rescinding, because I think the argument is that the reason the president does have the sole power is because they wanted to take it out of politics.

EPSTEIN: Well, but, Roger, I mean, you know, there is a question of fairness and even-handedness here. I mean, we learned from the Secret Service logs that were released yesterday that were -- apparently they were leaked. I don't know if they were leaked by the committee or not, but Dozoretz and Rich were supposed to have been at the White House, and we find out that wasn't true. That's reminiscent, again, of the Hubbell tapes that were doctored by the same committee, the Government Reform Committee.

COSSACK: Well, but the fact of the matter is that the tapes...

EPSTEIN: But let's look at the issue of fairness. I mean, just consider what happened when Mr. Clinton left the White House. Remember all the allegations that there was vandalism at the White House and that they stole property? But it's the point, Roger, because these allegations get made and then nobody ever comes back and corrects the record.

COSSACK: Well, it's...


COSSACK: I'm going to let the congressman speak for himself. Let me have the congressman speak.

LATOURETTE: The Secret Service logs notwithstanding, it's uncontroverted that the president of the United States is calling out to Aspen, Colorado to talk to Beth Dozoretz and Mrs. Rich, and saying he's trying to twist the arms of his own people in White House to try and get this thing done.

So this business about he's running on fumes and it's the 19th of January, he apparently had been working on this for some time. He knew who Marc Rich was. He'd received calls from Prime Minister Barak. He knew how much money was being contributed. And I think it's disingenuous to say that somehow this guy is just tired, which is one defense, and he doesn't -- he can't quite figure out that a guy that's trading with the enemy and is a fugitive from justice he's going to pardon.

EPSTEIN: The question is, where...

COSSACK: All right, I got to hold you off for a second because we've got to take a break.

When we come back, should there be a constitutional amendment limiting the pardoning power? We're going to talk to Congressman Barney Franks, who thinks that perhaps there should be. Don't go away.


Q: Why has a New Jersey woman been temporarily barred from contacting singer Whitney Houston?

A: The woman repeatedly sent cards and gifts to Houston, whom she says is her "supernatural reincarnated mother." In "The Bodyguard," Houston starred as a singer who was stalked by a fan.



COSSACK: Welcome back.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill is Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Congressman Frank, you have proposed a constitutional amendment which would limit the president's power to give pardons during that lame-duck period between the election and the inauguration. Aren't you, by suggesting that, taking something which the founders of the Constitution wanted to take out of politics and putting it back in politics?

REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Oh, absolutely not, no.

In the first place, I think the evidence is that when pardons are issued during the normal part of a term, not in that lame-duck period, they work well. The founding fathers had a very different conception of presidential elections than we had today. Remember, according to them, there weren't going to be direct elections. You were going to have the electors picking smart men.

You really cannot logically infer from what the founding fathers said anything about today's presidential elections. We have amended the Constitution significantly, both in practice and legally, with regard to presidential elections: term limits, etcetera. And, by the way, the founding fathers never saw term limits. So you never had a situation, as they saw it, where there would be a president who would be ineligible to run again.


FRANK: As I look at the situation, it is clear: Those pardons which people have found most offensive -- and would seem to me to be abusive, under both President Clinton and President Bush -- happened in a period when nobody could respond. Not that you could cancel the pardons, but it does seem to me reasonable to say to a president: If you are going to do this, then the public ought to be fully aware and be able to react if it wants to react.

COSSACK: But let me make this suggestion to you: that the founding fathers saw the pardon power as an act of mercy and knew that, from time to time, this would be an unpopular act by the president, because, in fact, what he's doing, he's allowing people that have been convicted of crimes to have their records expunged or to get out of jail.

FRANK: No, first of all, I...

COSSACK: And didn't he -- and one -- the argument would be that they wanted to take that out of politics and give this unfettered power.

FRANK: First of all, again, I think arguing from what these people thought well over 200 years ago about presidential elections, when they have totally changed, is really not a good way to argue this. Let's argue this on the merits. What James Madison did or didn't think, frankly, in the first place, neither you or I really know.

And secondly, it's not controlling. And people tend to use the founding fathers, you know, as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) weights. If you think you might agree with them, you pull them in. Let's talk about the merits. I think there should be a pardoning power. I think a president ought to have that power. I think you need a safety valve. I'm opposed to proposals that would limit it in his ability to actually give pardons. I don't think -- I think it would be a terrible idea let Congress overturn them.

But it does seem to me to say: Look, in a democracy, things should not be done in precisely that period when the public is not able to react at all. And therefore, I think you get these abuses that happen in this lame-duck period. I don't think the public is bloodthirsty. I think most of the pardons that presidents have given could be justified. But I do think we have this problem of abuses, both with regard to the Bush pardons, and particularly with regard to the Clinton pardons.

And I think some people are trying diminish the pardon power overall. I would rather allow pardons to remain fully available, but, I think, diminish the abuses.

COSSACK: All right, let me go to your colleague, Congressman LaTourette.

You heard the arguments Congressman Frank make. Agree or disagree?

LATOURETTE: Well -- and Congressman Frank knows that nobody likes to tinker with the Constitution more than Republicans. But I have to tell you that it's my view that the grace of the king should be unfettered. And I would hope that what comes out of this is that future presidents, starting with this president, Bush, say: You know, it's probably not a good idea to grant a pardon without having it vetted by the Justice Department.

And then let the president, lame duck and not, take the heat for that decision.

COSSACK: What about that, Congressman Frank: the notion that perhaps we learn from this rather than amend the Constitution?

FRANK: Well, we are not going to learn from it because -- I would disagree that you say: Well, let the lame-duck president take the heat.

There isn't any real heat you can apply. And I must say, I do not see what harm is done in saying: We are going to allow this to be in this period. Now, it may be that people just want to attack Bill Clinton and complain. And he gave them a good deal to attack. He clearly did things he should not have done. The question is whether that is all you want to do -- make political points out of it -- or do you want to try to prevent their occurrence.

And the notion that 10, 20, 30 years from now, people are going to be deterred if they are in a similar lame-duck status seems to me to be a mistake. And, again, this notion they are something so important in our society that we must insulate them entirely from the public, I dispute that. I have more confidence in the public than that.

COSSACK: All right, Congressman, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": Did President Bush convince you about his plans for tax cuts? Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

And join us again tomorrow for the congressional hearings and another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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