I set up my own criteria for discussing political scandals in a particular context. The popular imagination usually gravitates to the question “Is the most interesting accusation a big deal?” Whether the accusation is true, or whether less interesting parts of the scandal might be important tends to get left behind. Senator Bloviator ran over a child with his limousine at 100 mph and didn’t turn back. Isn’t that reprehensible? Well, yes it would be if it turns out to be true. If it turns out that the 100 mph is true but it’s a dead cat, the public goes away. I would still be interested why the senator is driving 100 mph. It’s not as big a deal as killing a child, but it does raise questions of judgment and entitlement.
I’d like to go back over the ground of some Clinton scandals. We got distracted by the exciting parts, and missed some key items. The most important and most telling items are not always the sexiest.
Vince Foster is found dead. The next three months were taken up with dark speculations about why he committed suicide, and even darker speculations that it was not suicide. The latter proved poorly-founded, and the former proved uninteresting from a government standpoint (though obviously interesting to those who knew him and to students of human nature). Frequently mentioned but not pursued was what originally drove the speculations: the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Park Police (who had jurisdiction over the investigation) were prevented from entering Foster’s office to begin its investigation that morning. Everyone wanted to speculate what was being covered up. But the mere fact that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Nussbaum were giving orders to the Department of Justice, preventing them from starting the search, is an enormous point. What the hell are the First Lady and White House Counsel doing giving orders about a death investigation in the first place? Let’s picture an identical scenario. Dick Cheney turns up dead and Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush show up at the White House and prevent the FBI and DOJ from going into his office, supported by Fred Fielding or C Boyden Gray. Who? Yeah, who dey? Or Laura Bush and Harriet Miers barring the office door of say, a missing Karl Rove. Do you begin to see why this is problematic? If these are national security or other executive privilege documents, then where is the president? Where’s the Sec Def or the Attorney General making the case?
It’s not just the speculation of what might be hidden. Heck, it could be minor crap that is merely embarrassing, like love letters or bondage porn. It’s that no First Lady and White House Counsel have anything like that authority. The excuses they gave, even if true, were inadequate. Obstructing the FBI and DOJ from investigating the death of a high-ranking government official is extremely serious, and a terrible precedent. Some quotes from the case:
Dan Moldea (professional investigator whose book concluded that Foster’s death was a suicide and the conservative conspiracy theories mostly unfounded) -
Yes, there was this general feeling that something was being covered up, and that stemmed from the search of Foster's office when Bernie Nussbaum changed the rules of the game and refused to allow the Department of Justice and the Park Police to participate in the search. During the Senate Whitewater Committee it came out that Mrs. Clinton, her chief of staff Maggie Williams and Susan Thomases (the New York attorney who is close friends with both Ms. Williams and Mrs. Clinton), had talked 17 times in a 43-hour period after Foster killed himself. Then Mrs. Thomases calls Nussbaum on the morning of the search, after Nussbaum has agreed to allow the Department of Justice and the Park Police to participate in the search. But after this conversation, Nussbaum changes the rules. He decides to keep all the options and all rights to the search, and then forces the Department of Justice attorneys, David Margolis and Roger Adams, as well as the Park Police guys, Charlie Hume and Pete Markland, to stand there like cigar-store Indians. That is where the conspiracy people believe the coverup began.
Or Professor Phillip Heymann, Harvard Law (exam question)
Then, the following morning, July 22, when the review of files was to take place, Mr. Nussbaum announced that the system was to be changed. While the Park Police, the F.B.I., and the two attorneys sat at the opposite end of the room, he would look at all the files and simply announce whether they had any relevance to an investigation of Foster's death. The two Department of Justice attorneys objected and called me. I objected strongly. Still, Mr. Nussbaum proceeded on the basis he had announced, letting no one from outside the White House see any part of the files or documents. No note or other indication of despondency was found on that occasion, although Nussbaum also looked in Foster's briefcase.
Then at the end of the day, he dispersed the files to several other places: personal quarters of the Clinton's, the attorney for the Foster family, and other lawyers in the White House Counsel's office. Meanwhile, the Park Police were also finding it very difficult to conduct interviews in the White House. White House attorneys were always present, preventing any private interview.
Yesterday, July 27, out of the blue, the Attorney General and I were called to the White House in the evening. This was several days after the strange "review" of the Foster files. We were told that Bernie Nussbaum and his aides had just found in Foster's briefcase a torn note in Foster's handwriting. They had somehow missed the note when going through his briefcase the day of the search of the files. The note reflected depression and a sense of inadequacy to his job. The White House has held the note for about 24 hours before letting us know of its existence. The Attorney General demanded that the note be immediately be turned over to the Park Police.
The failure to find the note at the time of the reported office search was a final "straw" of embarrassment for the Park Police. They notified their boss, the Secretary of the Interior, that they wanted out of the case – that they could not handle a White House investigation. The Secretary's chief of staff came to see me to let me know of this prospective, embarrassing withdrawal.
Let us also note that Vince Foster was arguably Hillary Clinton’s closest friend. You don’t have to believe the rumors of an affair, or of his managing all the Clinton secrets, to remember that these rumors arose because of his particularly close relationship to the First Lady. Your best friend is found dead, and your first response is to not let professional investigators in and figure out what happened? What the hell kind of friend is that?
No one asked the Clintons to justify why Hillary stepped in, why the FBI and DOJ were kept out, why Bernie Nussbaum was anywhere near the case, or even why they thought their close friend might have committed suicide. No one asked. The White House press corps thought it more important to focus on refuting the questions from the opposition.
What was being hidden is no longer the point. Whether this is concealing vast crimes or just politically inconvenient or technically illegal small stuff doesn’t matter much. This is the behavior of dictators’ families, not elected officials.