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Should Congress Begin Investigating the President's Associates?

Aired June 18, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, the president reacts as Democrats call for investigations of some of his closest associates. Are the probes warranted? Or are Democrats just trying to turn the tables for years of Clinton investigations?


SEN. BYRON DOHGAN (D), NORTH DAKOTA: I don't think you can turn a blind eye to improprieties that are committed by public officials, but this ought not be payback time.


ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic strategist Mark Mellman and Republican strategist Cliff May.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Things have been too quiet in Washington since Bill Clinton left. No scandals. No hearings. No investigations. But, if Democrats have their way, that could very well change.

Congressman Henry Waxman wants to put top White House aide Karl Rove on the hot seat to look into a possible conflict of interest. Today, President Bush defended his chief political adviser.

Others accuse Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill of not yet selling his stock in Alcoa, the company he ran before going to Treasury. And Democrats have already initiated one investigation already, that of Dick Cheney's energy task force. But not all Democrats like what's going on.

Payback may be fun, they say, but is it good politics? That's our CROSSFIRE tonight. Are top Bush officials lining their own pockets? Should Democrats do to Republicans what Republicans did to them?

We must tell you, Bob and Tucker are still AWOL tonight. So, sitting in on the right, a man with absolutely no conflict of interest -- can't count them, that's the problem -- Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

Mike, welcome.

MIKE MURPHY, GUEST HOST: Thank you, Bill, good to be here.

Mark, you guys have had the Senate for just a handful of days, and already, there is a blood-curdling witch hunt going on. You're power-drunk, and you're going after Republicans. How can you ever defend this?

MARK MELLMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The truth is Democrats have a different view. Democrats are saying, basically, legislate not investigate, let's treat the Republicans a whole lot better than the Republicans ever treated us. The fact is, there is not one investigation of Republicans going on in the Senate today.

PRESS: Cliff May, sitting here for the last five years, all I have heard a Republican saying, the Constitution tells us we have an oversight responsibility to exercise. So now you Republicans are saying now that the Democrats are in charge, no more oversight. Is that it?

CLIFF MAY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: And for the last five years the Democrats have been saying, you Republicans, you are the party of investigation, not legislation. We are different. And the first time you get any power at all in the Senate, as you pointed out, you will investigate on no grounds.

So I know you do not believe for a second that anybody in this administration is lining their pockets. Look me in the eye, look at that teleprompter and say you believe differently -- you don't.

PRESS: Yes, I do.


MELLMAN: The issue is not, is he lining his pockets? I believe Karl Rove is probably a very decent guy. But the question is what this administration is saying, make that judgment with no facts, no information, we don't want to tell you anything.

MAY: Let me give you the facts. Let me give you the facts. Give me 10 seconds...

MELLMAN: Why not let Karl Rove give us the facts?

PRESS: Well, well...

MAY: The facts are that in January, Karl Rove said he was going to divest -- in other words, sell -- all his stocks. He needed a certificate of divestiture from the White House counsel. He's been waiting to get one. As soon as he got one, which is early this month, he divested. His meeting was in March, there was no way he could expect that anything he said could possibly influence his portfolio. You know that, you know that, we all know that.

PRESS: Not quite so simple. We'll get into it one by one.

MURPHY: Yes, Mike, let's take a look at a piece of tape from long-suffering, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Let's see what he has to say about all this.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: Democrats want to legislate, not investigate. Again, I will say as many times as I must say it, that we're not going to engage in payback. There's plenty of temptation to do that, but we're not going to do that.


MURPHY: So, how can you reconcile that with this phony investigation of Rove, where he has done nothing wrong? Why don't you just follow the lead here and just agree, there is no need for this?

MELLMAN: But what Daschle said is exactly what I said before: Democrats want to legislate, not investigate. This is no Senate investigation going on today. You guys are inviting that investigation. You obviously want that investigation to happen.

MURPHY: Should there be? Or should there not be?

MELLMAN: But the reality is there isn't an investigation. Karl Rove was in the United States Senate. He has been asked for some information. Dick Cheney has been asked for some information. He says, I don't want to supply it. Cheney said, you don't need to know what special interest we met with, that's none of your business, he has something to hide.

MURPHY: But spin your way out of this one. Is Waxman right or wrong? Should there be an investigation of Rove or should there not be?

MELLMAN: Waxman hasn't even called for an investigation...

MURPHY: If he does...

MELLMAN: Waxman says, let's look and get some facts and get some information. You think facts are dangerous? Information is dangerous?

MURPHY: I think the facts are pretty clear.

PRESS: Here what's dangerous. What's dangerous is the memory bank of CNN, because people say things, presidents say things, and we remember.

Actually, it wasn't that long ago -- January 22, when he swore in the members of his White House staff, that President Bush said the following; let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I expect every member of this administration to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct. This means avoiding even the appearance of problems.


PRESS: Even the appearance of problems. Promises made, promises broken.

MAY: Promises made, promises kept. Look, nothing illegal has been done here. I hate to put in the negative, but it's true. Nothing unethical has been done here.

The only thing you can say Karl Rove wasn't sensitive to is the desire of some Democrats to have a scalp that they can take and hang up on their wall. And that's what people, like our friend Mr. Waxman is attempting to do here. Nothing has happened here that has any smell to it whatsoever.

I understand you think that any day we're talking about a subject like this on CROSSFIRE, it is a good day for the Democrats. But I think some Democrats know -- and I think you do Mark, I can tell -- this is bad politics for the Democrats. They start to look like they are getting into a fishing expedition in order to do pay back. It's hypocritical, and they will look vengeful. They've got the Senate, now let's see some policy. Let's see them do the job they were paid to do.

MELLMAN: We never want to look like you, Cliff -- you're absolutely right in that respect. We never want to get as down and dirty and bad and fail to legislate as you guys did. We never want to do that. We never want that kind of payback.

The reality is, Karl Rove chose to create an appearance problem for himself. And he needs to bring forward the facts in a clear manner, not just have somebody who really doesn't even know what those facts are, sitting around TV....

PRESS: I want to make it clear. Nobody is accusing anybody at this point of doing anything illegal.

MURPHY: Or unethical, right?

PRESS: We don't know. What we are talking about is the appearance of a conflict, and that is what the president said he wanted to avoid. Now, let's just look at it.

You have at least three members of the administration who have huge stock holdings in companies, that they are involved in decisions affecting those companies. You have to admit, if this were early Clinton days and there were Clinton White House people, Dan Burton and Al D'Amato would already be holding hearings on the Hill.

MAY: All these people are getting rid of or have gotten rid of or divested themselves of these stocks. Look, these people are all very wealthy men. Let's be honest about it. If they wanted to get wealthier, they would have stayed in the private sector or they would have gotten a job as a host on CNN's CROSSFIRE.


MURPHY: Mark, let me ask you a question about all this. The basic -- I'm going to drink the Democrat whacky Kool-Aid and turn into a vicious partisan here for an uncomfortable minute, all right?

The Democrat argument is that Karl Rove owns some stock, he met with some executives of the company -- by all accounts, he said nothing to then that was illegal or wrong. But that's a huge, horrible thing.

Democrat congressmen owns stocks, Democrat senators own stocks. Should all the people in your party, who now run the power in the Senate to regulate companies all over America, and make and break fortunes, sell all their stock too?

MELLMAN: Let's be a little bit straightforward, a little bit honest, Mike. The reality is those people from that company which Karl Rove owns stock in came to meet with him, to ask for executive action on the part of the administration. All anybody is saying is, let's find out what transpired in that meeting? Let's...


MURPHY: We know! There's a channel you deal with all these things. I believe Karl Rove.


MURPHY: This is a McCarthyite trip. What do you want to do, hook him up to a lie detector on national television and you guys -- this is ridiculous!

MELLMAN: Has he explained anywhere, in public in any public form exactly what transpired in that meeting?

MURPHY: Ari Fleischer at the White House, the press secretary, said very clearly...


MAY: Look, it's the Treasury that will decide on the possibility of a merger. It was not discussed, and if it was discussed, it had to do with a stock that he would by June have divested.


MELLMAN: It's a legitimate question. All he has to do is answer the question and it's all over. All he has to do is say no.


PRESS: Let me just slow down here, and get down to some of the facts.

First of all, I just want to get to your last cheap shot about CNN CROSSFIRE co-host.


PRESS: This is a list of Karl Rove's stock holdings. I'm going to quit this job and go into the political consultant business, when I see this. Listen.

He holds -- he holds at least between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in at least 10 companies here, between $50,000 and $100,000 in four companies. I mean, this guy did pretty well in Austin. And you know what? Good for him.

But two of the companies he has between $100,000 and $250,000 happen to be Intel. Intel is up for a proposed merger. The executives of Intel meet with Karl Rove in the White House -- guess what? The merger is approved.

Another company he owns stock in is Pfizer. Pfizer happens to be opposed to the Kennedy and McCain patients' bill of rights. He meets with them, the White House is opposed to the Kennedy-McCain bill. He meets, administration acts. Stock goes up.

Maybe the possibility of a conflict here? I mean, are you blind?

MAY: Bill, your tense is wrong. He doesn't own those stocks. In January, he said he would divest himself of those stocks. He has done so. He did so on the fastest schedule he could, based on the certificate of divestiture you need. If those stocks double tomorrow, will he make a penny on them? Not a penny.


PRESS: Wait a minute. Let's stick to the facts. When he met with the Intel people, he still owned those stocks and was meeting with a company. I'm just saying, at least the appearance...


PRESS: ... stock goes up, his portfolio goes up. You don't see a conflict?

MAY: He was going to divest, he did divest, he does not own those stocks. We are talking about long-range things. Look at where Intel is now compared to where it was even last year.

What Democrats are trying to do -- and it's pretty obvious -- is you feel that you were kind of stained at the end of the Clinton administration, and now you want to sling mud on other people too. Say, look, they investigated us, so we will investigate them, whether or not there are any grounds to investigate. And there are none.

MELLMAN: But the fact is -- but the fact is there aren't these investigations. We investigate more right on this show than in any hearing room on Capitol Hill.


MELLMAN: Let me ask you a simple question: Why did Karl Rove, as the political adviser to the president, have to meet with Intel about a corporate merger? What responsibilities as political adviser does he have that are relevant to that?

MAY: That wasn't the subject of the meeting. That is a separate subject...

MELLMAN: What was the subject of the meeting?

MAY: They were talking about other things. It had nothing to do with the merger. Look, Karl Rove is not...


MELLMAN: You don't happen to know what was discussed in the meeting, apparently, so how are you in a position to tell us what wasn't discussed in the meeting, or what was discussed?

MAY: So now you're saying -- prove that this wasn't discussed at that meeting. No one has alleged that it was, except you.

MELLMAN: All I'm saying is -- I'm not alleging anything. I'm not suggesting anything. All I'm saying is, if Karl Rove, who is a smart political operative, wanted to prevent the appearance of impropriety, all he has to do is step forward and say, look, here is what happened, here is what the meeting was about, here is what was discussed. He hasn't done that. I can only believe he has something to hide. I'm hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong.

PRESS: All right, gentlemen, we are going to take a break here, and when we come back, good news for Karl Rove, we are going to let Karl Rove off the hook. When we come back on CROSSFIRE, we will put Paul O'Neill and Dick Cheney on the hook. More CROSSFIRE coming up.


MURPHY: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Mike Murphy, sitting in on the right.

It's time machine night here on CROSSFIRE, as we find ourselves once again investigating investigations. Should the Democrats use their new majority power in the Senate to investigate the Republican administration, or is it time to call a truce?

Joining us tonight are Democratic strategist Mark Mellman and Republican strategist Cliff May -- Bill.

PRESS: God forbid there will be any truce on this.


PRESS: Cliff May, I want to ask you about another member of the administration, a man for whom I have a lot of respect. He thinks we ought to be acting on global warming, so do I -- Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. But again, I think we may have an appearance problem. He was former chairman of Alcoa. He came into the administration owning $100 million estimated in stocks and stock options.

His appointment was announced by the president last December the 20th. On March the 25th, he promised to sell all those Alcoa stock. He still hasn't. Why the delay?

MAY: Again, to divest oneself of one's stock is a long process. You need a certificate of divestiture.

But you don't really think -- I know you don't -- that what he is trying to do is to raise his portfolio up. As if he could not have made much more money not coming into the administration. What is going on here is so clear: after eight years during which members of this administration and close associates were not just investigated, they were convicted, plead guilty, you want to show that everybody is just as bad.

You don't think -- I know you don't -- that there is anything wrong with what he did or that he is attempting in any way to boost his income through any of these things.

PRESS: Do you really believe in six months he could not get divestiture form from his own Treasury Department?

MAY: Look how difficult it has been in six months simply to get staff into the various agencies and departments of government. Now, that is a really scandal that we should be looking at. Do you know that some people, including O'Neill, have spent $100,000 just having lawyers and accountants do the paperwork so they come into government? That's why a lot of people today don't want to work in the administration.

PRESS: Now, that's a nice spin. That's a nice spin. But let me show you the problem, and the problem is that there are some Web sites out there, like this one. This happens to be the Democratic National Committee's Web site. And look there. They've got Paul O'Neill there in a money bag, and you see below it: it shows every day they track the Alcoa stock. Since he has been appointed, his Alcoa stock has gone up 30 percent, Cliff May.

MELLMAN: He's lucky he didn't get that piece of paper.

PRESS: He's lucky he didn't get that piece of paper.

Again, don't you see the embarrassing appearance here, and don't you think it's about time he did something about it?

MAY: He will divest himself of that stock and all other stock. He did not come into the administration because he wants an extra $1 million by holding his investments. You know that -- this is bogus, and you know that too. And you know what? It's not really for the Democrats, because people are going to understand what this really is. I think you know this is... (CROSSTALK)

MELLMAN: ... more money to give to the Republicans, and that's definitely bad for us.

MAY: We've got plenty of rich trial lawyers out there with billions of dollars who have money to give you guys.

MURPHY: I want to see the chart on Hillary's commodity deal, you know...


MURPHY: Mr. Mellman, what is the purpose of all this? Here is a guy who is a Fortune 500 executive...

MELLMAN: It's your show, I don't know...

MURPHY: I was asking a metaphysical question here!

MELLMAN: You're the guys who set this up!

MURPHY: No, not the purpose of this discussion, the purpose of beating the hell out of this poor guy whose only crime has been to take tremendous pay cut to go into government service and try to help his country. What's the victory here? You're not going to hurt the Republican Party, you aren't going to win a single election over this. You are just going to make a public-spirited citizen's life hell. Why?

MELLMAN: Nobody's trying to make a public-spirited citizen's life hell, except the folks on this show! The fact is, if Paul O'Neill would have just told the truth and said, look, it's going to take me a year or so to divest, and you know, when I get around it, I'll get around to it. He would have been a lot better off than saying "I am going to do it now," and months and months later, he can't do it.


MELLMAN: ... can't find a piece of paper that allows him to sell his stock. I mean, it's just not very credible.

MURPHY: But what is the upside of this partisanship, though? Clearly, this kind of bickering, this kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), what -- is the -- the Democratic Party is going to backfire on this.

MELLMAN: Michael, you know that very well, because as a die-hard partisan Republican, it backfired on you guys. We are not trying to do what you guys did. We will never sink to the depths that you guys sank to. Don't try and pull us down there. We are not there!

You know, the reality is, we are trying to do legislation. What's the Senate doing this week? It's not investigating any of these people. The Senate this week is trying to pass a patients' bill of rights. MURPHY: Would an investigation be bad politics?

MELLMAN: ... which George Bush happens to oppose.

MURPHY: Will you take that position that the Senate should never do any investigation on any of these guys?

MELLMAN: It would be crazy to say the Senate should never do any investigations of anything. They should have oversight.

MAY: But they shouldn't investigate bogus matters, like the ones we are talking about tonight.

MELLMAN: They should investigate when there is reason to investigate, and they should investigate both parties. Look, Bill Burton (sic) has put out 1,000 unilateral...

PRESS: Dan Burton.

MELLMAN: Dan Burton, sorry.


MELLMAN: ... can't even remember what I'm talking about. Dan Burton has put out 1,000 unilateral subpoenas, 99 percent of them to Democrats. Still, last week, last Friday -- last Friday, Dan Burton was holding a hearing investigating something the former attorney general was alleged to have done before she was attorney general. Where is the change in tone in Washington?

MAY: Now we know what this is all about, it's subpoena envy.

PRESS: No. Here is what it's all about -- no, what it's all about is just expecting that people abide by the rules and regulations that are in place.


PRESS: And when they don't, it's fair to raise questions about why they haven't.

But there is one item we haven't touched on yet, and that is an ongoing investigation -- not by Democrats in the House, not by Democrats in the Senate -- by an agency of this administration.

The General Accounting Office has opened an investigation into alleged conflicts of interest between Dick Cheney, the members of his energy task force and their contacts with leaders of the energy industry. Wouldn't you have to agree that GAO is not going to start an investigation unless they have evidence of at least an apparent conflict of interest?

MAY: This again, this is pay back for the Hillary Clinton health care task force. That's all this is.

(CROSSTALK) MAY: Look, the fact of the matter is, Cheney met with consumer groups, Cheney met with environmentalists, Cheney also met with the people who actually produce energy. You think that's a bad thing to do? He met with all of them, none of it is secret. What's more, the energy bill is going to be very hard to pass through a Democratic Senate at this point. There's nothing here to investigate.

PRESS: We don't know yet. But let me ask you this: so, the General Accounting Office has asked the White House to give them the minutes and the notes of all the meetings that were held -- secretly I might add -- with the leaders of the energy industry and the energy task force, and the White House has said, no way. What do they have to hide, Cliff?

MAY: This is a fishing expedition. I am sure they will cooperate and give everything that the GAO has the right to demand.

MELLMAN: But they haven't! They refused!

PRESS: They refused. Why?

MAY: Three fishing compete additions in this one show. Three fishing expeditions that no one says there was any illegality, no one says there was anything unethical. At most, you can charge there was the appearance, and I disagree with that.

MELLMAN: Cliff, the General Accounting Office is an independent, nonpartisan agency.


MELLMAN: Independent, nonpartisan agency. That's right -- we said it was a Republican agency -- it's an independent, nonpartisan agency that says, "we went to get some information," and Dick Cheney has taken the bizarre, the truly bizarre position that although the GAO investigated the Clinton White House, it's not allowed to investigate the Bush White House. That's a principle...

MAY: What is the charge here?

MELLMAN: That there were meetings between people who care about energy and people who provide energy as well as consumer...


MELLMAN: One of the charges is that in fact -- you may not be aware of this -- but in fact, Dick Cheney personally never met with any environmental groups. The charge is, as "Newsweek" reported, that a memo went from the oil lobby, saying, this is our policy, and was adopted whole hog. That's the report in the public press by the same guy that went after the Clinton administration. That's the investigation the GAO wants to do, and the administration is saying, "we are hiding everything." Why not just get the facts out?

MAY: Sounds like a conspiracy.

MELLMAN: If there's nothing to hide, why not put it out? What's the problem?

MAY: I don't think that every fishing expedition should be joined in this way, because that just give more timber to the fire.


PRESS: Gentlemen, thank you. No investigation of Cliff May or Mark Mellman, we appreciate you coming in tonight. Both of you, as always, good debate. And Mike Murphy and I will have a choice word we call the closing comments coming up of all these possible conflicts.


PRESS: Mike, you know I don't think there's anything evil in any of this, I don't think there's even anything illegal. You know what it is? It's just sloppy and it's arrogant. I mean, this gang in the White House think they can get a free ride, and it ain't going to happen.

MURPHY: Well, we both know there's nothing going on, but we disagree about what's it about. It's about cheap shots for easy applause for the Democrats! You guys want to score in the administration, you are going to do anything you can to try to get away with it, even though there's nothing there.

PRESS: No. You know, if anything, it's about what goes around comes around, and that's not a bad policy. You know, I would say if Democrats conduct one-half of the investigations that Dan Burton did, they'd be doing a good job. Just one-half!

MURPHY: The smartest think the Democrats can do -- and they won't do it, is not conduct any investigations, and actually legislate and not obliterate. And that's their problem. I'm coining a new rhyme.

PRESS: Wait a minute! What happened to the big oversight responsibility on the part of Congress?

MURPHY: Not for partisanship.

PRESS: Oh, it just disappeared. I got it, all right.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MURPHY: From the right, I'm Mike Murphy. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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