Press Briefing by Lloyd Cutler, Special Counsel to the President
The Briefing Room
1:03 P.M. EDT
MR. CUTLER: Good afternoon. I have a short statement that I'll read. I think you all have it, but I'll read it for the cameras, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.
The Independent Counsel's report establishes conclusively that Vincent Foster committed suicide in Fort Marcy Park, just as the Park Police reported at the time. This should put to rest the irresponsible speculations, many of them politically motivated, that something more sinister had occurred. We hope these rumormongers and those parts of the media that published their rumors will now leave the Foster family in peace.
We're gratified by the Independent Counsel's conclusion that the so-called Whitewater events were not involved in the depression that led to Mr. Foster's suicide. And we're also pleased by the Independent Counsel's conclusion that no indictments will be sought relating to the White House-Treasury contact, so-called. And while some of these contacts may have been inadvisable in hindsight, in our view they violated no law.
And finally, we'll cooperate fully, as we have been up to now, in the Independent Counsel's continuing inquiry into the handling of the documents in Mr. Foster's office after his suicide. And we look forward to a prompt and appropriate resolution of this matter as well.
Q: Mr. Cutler, what do you think the holdup is on Fiske not finishing the documents angle?
MR. CUTLER: Well, Mr. Fiske is trying to get everything done in time so that these hearings can begin and that all concerned will have an adequate opportunity to prepare for the legislative hearings, that is. And as you can tell, he's a very thorough man, and apparently he's got some loose ends to clean up.
Q: Does this mean that now the White House staff will be free to talk about all of these matters in congressional hearings that are going to start?
MR. CUTLER: Well, we anticipate a number of them may very well be called in congressional hearings. And more importantly, for the moment, we are now free to go forward with our own review of what actually happened so that we will be prepared to testify on behalf of the White House as to what actually occurred and whether we think any corrective measures are necessary for the future.
Q: When you say we, does that mean that you plan to testify on behalf of the White House?
MR. CUTLER: If invited to testify I would be glad to do so.
Q: What is the purpose of that review? Is it just simply to prepare for congressional testimony, or is it to possibly prepare for some kind of internal administrative action?
MR. CUTLER: It is to look at what happened and why it happened, and if we conclude that any of it was inappropriate or that it resulted from inadequate instructions in the White House as to what contacts, what types of contacts would be appropriate or inappropriate, we can take remedial measures. As you know, we did take a remedial measure immediately after the contacts were first disclosed. And all communications -- at that point a memorandum was circulated saying that all communications relating to MadisonWhitewater with any investigative agency had to be cleared with the White House Counsel.
Q: Could this possibly include any kind of internal administrative disciplinary action?
MR. CUTLER: Yes -- I'm not ready to state whether any will be necessary, but it certainly would include that if necessary.
Q: Are you satisfied, based on what you now know, with the White House handling of the Foster documents?
MR. CUTLER: I cannot answer that question because we have been asked by Mr. Fiske in the course of his inquiries not to interview any of the White House or Treasury people who he was interviewing or calling before the grand jury. That's a natural kind of precaution a good prosecutor wants to take so that the witnesses or their counsel will not have an opportunity to talk to one another and coordinate their testimony. As of today, we are now free to do that kind of interviewing ourselves, and we will be able to come to some conclusions.
Q: Do these interim conclusions from the Special Counsel give you any insight into the depth, the range, the timetable, the manner in which Mr. Fiske intends to investigate the broader Whitewater matters?
MR. CUTLER: Well, this is the wind-up or the almostbut -not-quite wind-up of the so-called Washington phase of his hearings. I don't know, of course, what the scope or focus of interest of the so-called Arkansas phase will be. But I do want to make clear that the bulk of his assignment, if we correctly understand the nature of the criminal referral -- and our understanding is from the press -- the bulk of his assignment is to whether officials, directors, managers, et cetera, of Madison Guaranty committed any wrongs of either a criminal nature or a civil nature. And only the smallest part of that total inquiry has any kind of peripheral relationship to the Clintons.
Q: It's been brought out that some of the funds from the sale of narcotics that came from Central America to Arkansas during the Bush administration, those funds were laundered to the same -- and people that Mr. Fiske was working with. Do you know if Mr. Fiske gave any attention at all to what was going on there in Arkansas?
MR. CUTLER: I have no idea. But why didn't you ask that question of Mr. Fitzwater when President Bush was in office? I don't know the answer to the question.
Q: I did -- don't think I didn't. (Laughter.)
Q: How did the President find out about the report? Did you sit down and review the findings with him? What was his reaction?
MR. CUTLER: Well, he had -- as usual, he's busy being President, and he had a very busy morning, and he was informed by one of his aides with a very quick summary of the results. And I did not speak to him personally.
Q: Well, will you sit down and review the details with him sometime?
MR. CUTLER: Oh, absolutely.
Q: What was his reaction on the initial word of this?
MR. CUTLER: I was not in the room when that happened, and when I saw him he was in a big meeting. But I have no doubt he's very pleased by these results.
Q: Do you have any idea how long this internal review will take that they're talking about?
MR. CUTLER: We face hearings in the two committees beginning in the last week of July, and it certainly will be done by then.
Q: Now, are you coordinating this review? Is the Treasury Department? And can you describe how that coordination will occur?
MR. CUTLER: I don't want to speak for Secretary Bentsen, but as I think has been reported, he originally said he was going to ask the Office of Government Ethics to conduct a review. The Office of Government Ethics issues opinions on statements of facts, but has no investigating capability of its own. As a result, Secretary Bentsen asked the Office of Inspector General of the Treasury Department to conduct a review of facts. That is now in process, and I assume at some point the Office of Government Ethics will rule on the set of facts found by the Inspector General.
And we will be doing something similar, and we will be coordinating with the Treasury Inspector General with respect to interviews and exchanges of factual information on the Treasury side and the White House side.
Q: Will you be talking to people not now in the White House, such as Bernie Nussbaum?
MR. CUTLER: No doubt, yes.
Q: What is the feeling about the upcoming hearings? And what do you think will be the outcome -- do you think that the White House will have to go underground for a while?
MR. CUTLER: Helen, we have said we will cooperate in any hearings that Congress decides to hold. Congress -- as you know, both Houses have passed resolutions calling for hearings in their oversight capacities; hearings that as to subject matter would be coordinated so as to not interfere with Mr. Fiske's investigation.
We certainly don't expect to go underground as a result of those hearings. We will prepare for those hearings. We expect them to turn out -- we hope -- in a very satisfactory manner. And meanwhile, the President and everyone in this White House except me, I guess, will be concentrating on the duties of being President.
Q: Do you think the President and Mrs. Clinton may have to testify, or would they testify?
MR. CUTLER: I don't know. There are no precedents, as you know, for direct testimony in a congressional fact-finding hearing. But there certainly are accepted precedents as to how questions can be asked and answers can be furnished. And we will cooperate in that within the precedence.
Q: If I could just follow up on that -- does that mean that you don't think that they will?
Q: consider your own interviews --
Q: Somebody's talking.
MR. CUTLER: If you would decide among yourselves --
Q: Please follow up on that question --
Q: Well, I think I had the floor.
Q: Can I infer from that in your answer that you do not expect them to testify but you expect them to follow the precedent?
MR. CUTLER: We will cooperate with the committee and work out a way of providing any information they wish to have from the President and Mrs. Clinton.
Q: Does that mean they would be willing to testify before Congress?
MR. CUTLER: I didn't say that. I said we would live within the existing precedents, which you know just as well as I do.
Q: Sir, as you pursuing your interviews, which you say you're now --
MR. CUTLER: Will you say that again?
Q: As you pursue your interviews, which you say you're now able to undertake on the Foster case, will you be finding out what Mr. Foster was trying to tell the President when he talked to him Monday night and they arranged to speak on the following Wednesday before he died on Tuesday?
MR. CUTLER: Well, all of that is set forth in this long report about the Foster suicide. I know of nothing in addition to that. I don't believe -- of course, as you know, they never had the discussion, and I do not know what they were planning to talk about.
Q? Mr. Cutler, in terms of this in-house investigation that you have described, who will be responsible for it individually? Who's the person who is the head of this thing and how will --
MR. CUTLER: I will.
Q: You will. And will you be actually doing the interviews and conducting the investigation yourself, or will you have people in the Counsel's Office speaking for you?
MR. CUTLER: No, I have very good helpers in the Counsel staff, and the Counsel staff has been augmented by Sheila Cheston, who is the Deputy General Counsel of the Air Force, and by, I guess I should say, a former partner of mine, named Jane Sherburne, both very good litigators and fact-finders, who is over here on temporary assignment.
Q: Mr. Cutler, does the fact that there will be no indictments sought, does that allow then those White House staffers who had to hire private attorneys to be reimbursed for any or all of those expenses?
MR. CUTLER: I'm afraid the answer to that is no. Under the independent counsel statute -- and you all know that Mr. Fiske, at least now, is not operating under the independent counsel statute because the Republicans chose not to continue it in effect, and has only now been passed now by the Congress -- but under that statute, if you are a subject of an investigation and not indicted, then you may apply to the court for reimbursement of those fees which would not have been incurred but for the appointment of an independent counsel. In other words, if there had been a normal -- it's whatever you would have had incurred above a normal Department of Justice investigation.
None of that applies in Mr. Fiske's case because he is not a statutory independent counsel. So that provision of the statute would not --
Q: At what point does that change?
Q: You just said that the Republicans in Congress decided not to renew the independent counsel statute. Could you tell us exactly how they went about doing that?
MR. CUTLER: They filibustered the extension of the statute before it expired in December.
Q: If I could follow up, please --
Q: When's he going to sign it, tomorrow?
MR. CUTLER: I don't know what day, but he certainly will sign it.
Q: If I could follow up, please. The thoroughness and seriousness of the Fiske report tends to lead one to believe that there were some serious, legitimate questions surrounding some of these events. Today you called them politically motivated. Why is that?
MR. CUTLER: What I call politically -- some of them politically motivated were the rumors about Vince Foster's death. You're all familiar with them -- that it was not a suicide, that he was murdered; that there was a German intelligence hit squad that had been hired to knock him off; that maybe he committed suicide, but not in Fort Marcy Park; that his body had been moved -- all of those stories. And they were circulated, many of them, by prominent legislators of the Republican Party.
Q: And you said they were politically motivated?
MR. CUTLER: I said some of them were politically motivated, yes.
Q: The report says there were more than 20 contacts between White House staff members and investigative agencies, and only a few of those have been disclosed. Could you tell us why they weren't -- there wasn't more candor in disclosing them when they were talking about it?
MR. CUTLER: Well, you have Mr. Fiske's report. We are just beginning our inquiries into the matter. I believe that every principal contact has already been disclosed into the press, but I cannot tell you at this moment how many there were or of what significance they were. You have what is in the press. You have Mr. Altman's testimony about the contacts with which he was familiar.
Q: But you don't know why they limited the acknowledgements here on contacts to those that were known and didn't volunteer the others that occurred?
MR. CUTLER: Who's the "they" you're talking about?
Q: The White House information and communications staff which dealt with pieces of --
MR. CUTLER: Well, in particular, because Mr. Fiske had asked us not to conduct our own review over here, so we could not interview White House people to find out how many contacts there were.
Q: So you didn't know?
MR. CUTLER: We didn't know, that's correct.
Q: But you still think that all the principal ones are publicly disclosed even though you haven't interviewed people --
MR. CUTLER: Based on my present knowledge, that's what I believe.
Q: Have you talked to Nussbaum about this? Have you talked to Hansen?
MR. CUTLER: Since Mr. Fiske asked us not to deal with any of his principal witnesses or their counsel until he finished, we have not, from the time he asked us not to do so. But we certainly will.
Q: The report carefully says that there was insufficient evidence for criminal indictment. It does not say there was no evidence. And Mr. Fiske rather pointedly says he's not going to comment on the propriety or ethics. Does that aspect of the report concern you? It's certainly not a clean bill of health.
MR. CUTLER: Well, Mr. Fiske is a good prosecutor, a good independent counsel, and he said no more than he needed to say in order to reach his conclusions. What he is saying is he is not passing judgment on whether any of these contacts violated any ethical standard and that that is up to other people to resolve. And that's what he says on the last page of that five-page statement. But these issues will certainly be within the scope of my review, and I assume within the scope of Treasury OGE review.
Q: Given the scope, the nature of this investigation, had Fiske been appointed as a special prosecutor -- as an independent counsel, if the law had been in effect, would those people who have been cleared today been eligible for reimbursement? And if he is indeed appointed independent counsel under the new statute as some people want, would that apply retroactively at all?
MR. CUTLER: I'm just giving you a horseback legal opinion. In my opinion, it would not be retroactive for expenses incurred up to the date that he is named as a statutory independent counsel.
But with respect to that entire matter, for those of you who have read the conference committee's report, the court, the special court, in an earlier case in approving fees for George Shultz's counsel, who happened to be me -- (laughter) -- had approved prevailing hourly rates in the District of Columbia, including my rate, but said that the statute had no standards and called on Congress to establish some standards.
The conference report -- let me just finish this -- now states that it believes it should not be the going hourly rate in the District of Columbia, it should be a rate comparable to what the independent counsel is paid. And then they did some arithmetic based on how many hours the independent counsel might work, and they concluded that would be somewhere between $40 and $75 an hour. (Laughter.) So it may not even be worthwhile to file the application. (Laughter.)
Q: Is that too much? (Laughter.)
MR. CUTLER: Well, you can't run a law firm at $40 or $75 an hour, I'll tell you that.
Q: Not now.
Q: Mr. Cutler, can we go to the issue of the people who applied to the Justice Department for some of their fees?
MR. CUTLER: I've said to you before, I think, we think that's a private matter, and Justice has been unwilling to disclose those names, as you know. When, as and if, if Justice decides to approve one of those applications, of course, that will be made public.
For those of you who are not familiar with this process, the Justice Department has a regulation saying that if you have to appear either in a court proceeding or a congressional investigation relating to your official conduct, you, a government official -- and the Department of Justice cannot represent you -- and of course, since Mr. Fiske is part of the Department of Justice, Justice cannot represent the people he is interviewing or studying -- in that event, you may apply to another part of the Justice Department with the approval of your agency -- in that case, it's me -- and you may or may not be authorized to hire private counsel at the expense of the government.
And even there, the level of reimbursement, when they approve, is very low. And they don't approve very often.
Q: And they have not made a conclusion on this?
MR. CUTLER: No.
Q: Mr. Cutler, do you envision the President and the First Lady possibly testifying before Congress on videotape, such as former President Reagan did with Iran-Contra?
MR. CUTLER: We don't really know what we're going to do yet. We have no requests yet. But we will stay someplace within the existing precedence if we can.
Q: Could you speak for a minute, from your vast political experience as a counselor, to the political significance of this phase of this investigation being closed apparently favorably for your client?
MR. CUTLER: Well, I think it's a very important development. I believe Mr. Fiske is operating in the tradition of the best independent counsels. And he has made, goodness knows, a very thorough investigation. You have only to heft this report and to read through it to see how thorough he is. And it is very significant that a nonpolitical person with a full staff, having conducted a full investigation, has come out to as categorical a set of conclusions as he has. And if you read it and the supporting material, I don't think much doubt will be left in your mind on those issues.
Q: Does that mean, though, that the most important issues facing the President -- the obstruction of justice, the things that really threaten -- could potentially threaten the presidency are now behind the President?
MR. CUTLER: Yes -- well, certainly the issue of any indictments is behind the President, yes.
Q: Indictments on this matter.
MR. CUTLER: Indictments of any people on his staff because of these contacts. If you're implying there's any risk of indictments of the President on anything, I certainly want to discourage that.
Q: We stand discouraged. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, sir, does that foreclose the possibility of indictment regarding the way the Vince Foster papers were handled after his death?
MR. CUTLER: You have to ask Mr. Fiske that question. He is not yet finished with that phase of his investigation.
Q: When do you think that might -- has he given you any indication when that might be when he might finish --
MR. CUTLER: We understand it would be within -- very promptly, in time so that the congressional committees and we can prepare for these hearings, which are to be in the last week of July. I would assume from that it's going to be very shortly.
Q: Mr. Cutler, did the President answer questions in some form for the Foster part of this, either through a written form or a --
MR. CUTLER: Well, the President, as all of you knew, was interviewed by Mr. Fiske, along with Mrs. Clinton, here a couple of Sundays ago. And there are several references to that interview --
Q: All of the stuff that refers to his thought process comes from that?
MR. CUTLER: As a result of that interview, yes.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:26 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Lloyd Cutler, Special Counsel to the President Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269565