Handicapping Watergate II

A tip sheet, guide and (generous) odds on the Clinton investigations


Andrew Ross
November 19, 1996 7:45PM (UTC)

President Clinton, his eyes firmly fixed on the history books, could not have been pleased to read Nixon historian Stephen E. Ambrose, one day after Clinton's triumphant re-election victory, telling the Wall Street Journal, "It's going to be like 1973-1974. The question (for Mr. Clinton) won't be, 'What do you want to do about the future?' but 'What did the president know and when did he know it?'"

Depending on one's point of view, such an outcome will either be a triumph for justice or the triumph of the Big Lie. Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Asiagate, Troopergate, Paula Jones to paraphrase the immortal words of Gerald R. Ford, the whole shmeer (or should it be smear?) has indeed become one big ball of wax. As the Wall Street Journal, licking its chops, reported in its day-after coverage, "a small army of prosecutors, congressional investigators and reporters are already mobilized for a second Clinton term."

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So what will we taxpayers get for the $25 million (and counting) we've spent on these interminable investigations? The short answer: much less than the aforesaid army would like.

As a public service, Salon offers (fully prepared for instant snorts of derision), a guide to the various "scandals," with utterly rash predictions on where they are headed.

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WHITEWATER
Four years, hundreds of thousands of documents and millions of column inches later, the "scandal" that started it all has come down to three possible lines of inquiry for independent counsel Kenneth Starr:


1. The fraudulent $300,000 loan.

The story so far:
Starr is desperately leaning on Susan McDougal, convicted in a related case, to testify that Bill Clinton pressured corrupt former Arkansas judge David Hale to loan her $300,000 from a Small Business Administration fund, some of which was used to shore up the failing Whitewater investment owned by the Clintons and James and Susan McDougal.

Worst-case scenario:
That then-Gov. Clinton not only contributed to a fraud by pressuring Hale, but that he lied about it under oath as President. Consequence: Impeachment.
The outlook:
Starr's best shot at nailing a sitting President. But even if the imprisoned Susan McDougal were to "turn," she would make a dreadful witness because a) she has previously insisted that no such meeting took place; b) has publicly accused Starr of pressuring her to commit perjury; and c)is under indictment for allegedly embezzling money from conductor Zubin Mehta. James McDougal, who is cooperating with Starr, would make an even worse witness, having told so many different stories and performed so catastrophically on the witness stand in his own trial, and having said that he was quite prepared to "fuck" the Clintons.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
50-1. Unless the McDougals or Hale were wearing a wire, there is not the faintest trace of anything resembling a smoking gun, and that is what it will take for the American public to entertain the idea of impeaching a President. However, President Clinton should probably set aside some time to fret.

2. Missing billing records.

The story so far:
Two years after they were subpoenaed by investigators, billing records relating to Hillary Rodham Clinton's legal work for the defunct Madison Guaranty S&L mysteriously turned up on a table in the Clinton's private residence in the White House, arousing suspicions that White House staff members, including Mrs. Clinton, deliberately hid the records.

Worst-case scenario:
Mrs. Clinton faces charges of obstruction of justice (for deliberately hiding records that could contain evidence of Whitewater-Madison Guaranty crimes), and perjury (she testified to a federal grand jury that she knew nothing of their whereabouts).
The outlook:
Like a hyena with a rotting carcass in its jaws, congressional Republicans aren't likely to let this one go. Kenneth Starr, meanwhile, is going back at an aide of Hillary Clinton who found the records. But what could the billing records possibly show that previous exhaustive investigations which have completely exonerated Mrs. Clinton did not?
Odds on constitutional crisis:
75-1. This has been Hillary's cross to bear, not her husband's. But should a smoking gun appear with the First Lady's name on it, a pall would likely enshroud the Presidency.

3. Castle Grande

The story so far:
A real estate project financed by the now-defunct Madison Guaranty (owned by James McDougal), may have been a shell to cover, among other things, fraudulent commissions paid to employees of a Madison subsidiary.

Worst-case scenario:
That Hillary Clinton, as the attorney for the Rose Law Firm representing Madison Guaranty, knowingly drew up a fraudulent document to facilitate the sham payments.
The outlook:
The case took on new life when a report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said the legal document was used to deceive federal bank examiners. A former Madison executive told FDIC investigators that Mrs. Clinton dismissed warnings of fishy business at Castle Grande. But the FDIC made no suggestion that Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong, and an earlier report by the Resolution Trust Corporation suggested Mrs. Clinton did not know the true purpose of the document.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
250-1. Not even the most venomous Clinton-haters have put him anywhere near the vicinity of Castle Grande. More likely a troublesome diversion to be handled by Hillary Clinton's lawyers.

TRAVELGATE

The story so far:
The Clintons replaced the occupants of the White House Travel Office with various Arkansas relatives and cronies. Perfectly legal. More questionable was the use of the FBI to investigate allegations of embezzlement among the existing staff (who were cleared). Worse still was the dissembling by White House staff, including Hillary Clinton, about their role in the firings.

Worst-case scenario:
That Hillary Clinton lied about her role, and that she and the President improperly used a government agency to harass and intimidate people they wanted to get rid of.
The outlook:
Starr's second best shot, though the target is more likely Hillary than Bill. It's also, at bottom, a really picayune matter, reflecting more on the Clinton's awful judgement than any criminal intent. And besides, there were legitimate concerns about the way the travel office was being run and the way its money was being handled.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
250-1. Look for congressional Republicans to wage constant, low-level guerilla warfare on the matter, and Kenneth Starr to issue a report condemning the sleazy White House ethics in the matter.

FILEGATE

The story so far:
Bureaucratic "snafu" or new "enemies list"? We're no further along on this one than when the story first broke that several hundred FBI files on Republicans and others found their way to the Office of Personnel in the White House.

Worst-case scenario:
That Bill and Hillary Clinton used the files for bedside reading and possible anti-Republican blackmail fodder.
The outlook:
Starr says he is making "substantial progress," but after finding absolutely no prints of the Clintons or any other senior White House official on the files, it's difficult to imagine what progress that might be.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
500-1. Expect sharp wrist-slap from Starr about sloppy record-keeping and careless hiring practices that allow a former bar bouncer to hold such a sensitive job.

THE "ASIAN CONNECTION"

The story so far:
Over $750,000 in questionable campaign contributions brought in by the notorious John Huang have already been returned by the Democratic National Committee, while Republicans gear up for a major assault.

Worst-case scenario:
That the President put his foreign policy up for sale to illegal foreign campaign contributors.
The outlook:
Congressional Republicans are gearing up for major assault, but with plenty of their own skeletons in the campaign finance closet, it is difficult to see how they can stay on the high road. Janet Reno's initial refusal to appoint an independent counsel in the matter is a bar to any serious legal proceedings, for now.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
75-1. Americans don't get too worked up about foreign policy; when Ronald Reagan broke the law to arm the contras, he emerged unscathed. Unless those Arkansas lawyers in the Far East turned out to be bagmen for an old pal...

PAULA JONES

The story so far:
Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed a sexual harassment suit against President Clinton, claiming that he dropped his pants in a hotel suite in May 1991 and said "blow me," or words to that effect. The suit has been held up pending appeals by Clinton's lawyer.

Worst-case scenario:
Sexual harassment charges. The circumstances would constitute a federal crime under a Justice Department brief filed in a more recent sexual harassment case (United States v. Lanier) against a Tennessee judge.
The outlook:
The Supreme Court is likely to throw out Clinton's claim that such a suit cannot be filed against a sitting President. Apart from a media frenzy, the ruling means the case begins again from ground zero. Given the ample opportunities for further legal postponements and delays, it is quite possible the suit would still not reach a court until Clinton's presidency ends. And even if it does, there are enough conflicts of testimony, muddying of waters and "character" issues relating to Paula Jones, that a judgment against a sitting President seems remote.
Odds on constitutional crisis:
100-1. The odds would have been longer had it not been for the Bob Packwood precedent. And it may revive interest in the largely defunct "Troopergate" scandal, which included jobs-for-silence allegations. A lot of private heartburn and huge legal bills for President Clinton, unless an out-of-court settlement is reached.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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