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Hillary Clinton Denies Involvement in Controversial Pardons; 'USA Today' Columnist Discusses Character of Senator in Crises

Aired February 22, 2001 - 2:02 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Joining from Washington, CNN'S Eileen O'Connor, how's closely following all this.

I don't know of you heard it, Eileen. Maybe I heard it wrong, but Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senator from New York has just told us that she had no involvement in any of these pardons. She added that she never knew about Marc Rich at all. That's a quote from her. But then went on to say that people asked her, around Christmastime, to pass on requests for pardons, and that she did that. So that would indicate she did have involvement with the pardons.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, she was a senator- elect, Lou, and the word was out that -- and the president had made it clear that he was going to be granting pardon applications and was looking at pardon applications. He wanted to use the pardon power; it is a broad power, and it is designed to right injustice in criminal justice system. So in fact, he and his aides have actually gone to the Justice Department a few months earlier and asked them for deserving cases.

So people were coming up to the president himself on rope lines and to other people, other Congressman and senators. And remember, Hillary Rodham Clinton was also a senator-elect as well as first lady. So it is likely that people -- and it does happen, it's happened in the past -- that people would pass her information and then she would then pass it on.

Now, what she says is that she didn't look at that information, and then she passed it onto the White House Counsel's Office. Now, also, this is obviously, a hedge, in case there is some note from someone in the White House Counsel's Office that, you know, Hillary Rodham Clinton passed this on to us. What she's saying is I didn't look at it, I passed it on -- I'm not going to deny that -- Lou.

WATERS: And Senator Clinton also said, repeatedly, that she was disappointed, saddened and disturbed when she heard about brother's involvement in two of those pardons, but drew a sharp distinction between that case and the two pardons granted as a result of work done by her Senate campaign treasurer, which she indicated done in the normal way, normal process, the way pardons are handled.

O'CONNOR: Well, that is the way we understand it. William Cunningham is a lawyer who was asked to fill out and take forward these pardon applications. He is telling Associated Press -- we've been trying to reach him -- that he actually did not go through the White House, that he gave those applications to the Justice Department -- they went through the normal channel -- and that he never spoke to the White House or Mrs. Clinton about those applications. Mrs. Clinton also said that he never spoke to her about it.

Now, the one thing, Lou, I will point out: that Hugh Rodham did, in fact, contact Bruce Lindsey, who's a White House counsel. But Bruce Lindsey -- sources close to the situation say that Bruce Lindsey did not know that Hugh Rodham was being paid to represent Carlos Vignali, and he only contacted Bruce Lindsey on the Vignali commutation of sentence. Bruce Lindsey says he knew nothing about the Almon Glenn Braswell pardon.

So the president said last night and has said-- sources close to him say -- that he has no recollection of any conversations with Hugh Rodham about these. But again, aides are going to be look through the files,the pertinent files, to make sure that there's no notation that he's just forgotten about -- Lou.

WATERS: And by president, you mean former President...

O'CONNOR: Yes, I'm sorry: former President Bill Clinton.

WATERS: Bill Clinton. It's hard to -- it's easy to forget sometimes with all the headlines he's capturing.

Eileen O'Connor, in Washington.

Natalie, what's next?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: So what does this mean to the congressional hearings regarding pardons, that we've been seeing, the past couple of weeks?

Let's find out from CNN's Kate Snow, who's been checking in to that.

KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, a development to tell you about regarding Representative Dan Burton's committee. You'll remember that he is the chair of the government reform committee on the House side. He's been looking into, specifically, so far, the Marc Rich pardon. And I've just been told that they have now received -- the office of that committee -- has received a letter from David Kendall, who is the attorney for the Clinton Presidential Library, in Arkansas, that letter saying that they will send documents that have been requested by Dan Burton's committee. They are going to send documents concerning 12 people associated with the Marc Rich case.

Now, that is not as much as what Representative Burton had asked for. The committee had requested that the library in Arkansas send over documents relating to anyone who had contributed more than $5,000 to that presidential library. The response, again, is that they will not send all of the information that was requested; they will send information only regarding those folks that they feel were most closely related to the Rich case: that includes Marc and Denise Rich and their children.

Now, I'm told that in 15 minutes or so, the committee will put out a statement. Representative Dan Burton of Indiana will put out a written statement responding to this, and I'm told that that statement will include information that they plan to subpoena the director of the library foundation -- that is Skip Rutherford -- they're going to ask him to come to Congress and testify on March 1st, next week.

The committee also looking into the potential that they could charge that gentleman with contempt of Congress. It's a complicated thing that takes several weeks to complete, but they could hold him in contempt for not having given them all the information that they requested -- Natalie.

ALLEN: And Kate, anyone there commenting, any members of Congress commenting, on the latest revelations about the pardons involving Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother?

SNOW: Right, Representative Burton, Natalie, did comment last night in a written statement about them. He said that he plans to have his committee look into those matters, in addition to the Marc Rich case. Already they have sent out about four letters to Hugh Rodham himself, to lawyers for the gentleman that he represented in connection with getting them clemency.

They're looking for information at this point. The committee has not decided whether they will invite Hugh Rodham, for example, to testify next week or how far they're going to take this, but they're certainly looking into it. And I can also tell you that, on the Senate side, the Senate Judiciary Committee had been looking into the Marc Rich case, the pardon issue, and they're also now considering this newest information about Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother.

Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, who's sort of spearheading the Republican effort on that committee to look into these matters has asked his staff to start investigating -- just preliminary, they're asking staff to start making phone calls, perhaps sending out some letters, to gather information in -- with the expectation that perhaps the committee, the Judiciary Committee, on the Senate side, might also take a further look at this -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Kate, we thank you.

How far are they going to take this: That's a question many may be asking on Capitol Hill, what the political fallout may be from these revelations, considering pardons.

For that, let's talk more about it with CNN's Jeanne Meserve, who's in our Washington bureau -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, thanks so much.

And I'm with Susan Page, who is the Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."

Susan, thanks for coming in. SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": Jeanne, good to be here.

MESERVE: Was Hillary Rodham Clinton effective? Did she control the damage from this incident?

PAGE: Well, she tried to. And she made a start by standing up there and answering questions, and that always takes a public official a certain distance. But I do think these past two days have been very damaging for her. Before we've had allegations and controversy surrounding pardons that her husband gave, but they really came closer to her now: They involve brother and they also involve her campaign treasurer.

So I think that sets up new questions a little closer to her personally.

MESERVE: Some distancing from her husband here I detected. She said you're going to have to ask him, you're going to have to ask his staff. Is she intentionally doing that?

PAGE: Well, she'd like to because clearly this is a controversy that's really scarred him in his desire to build a substantive legacy. I mean, it certainly has been the big mark on his -- on his first month out of office.

It's hard to distance yourself entirely from the president. You know, you could make the case that, for a senator-elect, it's perfectly appropriate to pass on pardon applications from your constituents. But for most senator-elects, you're not married to the guy who's going to make the decision, so it's a whole new set of complications particular to her.

MESERVE: A couple of times, she tried to steer the conversation around to other topics. One of them was the Clinton legacy. What has this all done to that?

PAGE: Well, you know, I think we've always -- one of the arguments that Clinton defenders made during the impeachment controversy was that President Clinton was a good president substantively, although he had personal failings. And the problem for President Clinton when it comes to this controversy is it really goes to the heart of one of his powers as president. So it's harder to make that case.

MESERVE: She was unflappable under very high stress. This is vintage Hillary Rodham Clinton, is it not?

PAGE: Well, you remember that early news conference she did as first lady, when the controversy was over commodities trading, where she wore a pink outfit and she sat in front of a large group of reporters for a long period of time. And she is unflappable, and that does serve her well as senator.

But you've got to know this was a hard way to start a six-year term as senator: with controversy surrounding your husband and a Senate investigation by a committee of your actions and your husband's action. It's a tough way to start a new term.

MESERVE: Susan Page, "USA Today," thanks so much.

PAGE: Thank you.

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