October 5, 1999
Bush Family Politics
DiGenova's appointment was made under court seal, an order that barred disclosure of the investigation. But diGenova promptly alerted the Bush White House.
According to a White House phone log, diGenova called presidential counsel C. Boyden Gray at 2:40 p.m. on Dec. 16. DiGenova left an "urgent" message which read: "Not at liberty to give subject b /c [because] of court order."
When I recently asked diGenova about the unusual message, he said he called to inform Gray that a subpoena for White House records would be forthcoming. DiGenova also recalled that he had contacted Gray only after word of the appointment had appeared in The Washington Post. I informed diGenova, however, that the Post story did not break until the evening of Dec. 17, more than a day after the phone call.
DiGenova called me back a few days later with a more formal answer: "One of the first things I did was to call the White House counsel's office to advise him [Gray] that there was a criminal investigation and he was to protect and preserve documents in the White House. They had to know there was an investigation."
When I asked diGenova whether Gray might have construed the Dec. 16 contact as a "courtesy call," diGenova answered, "It could have had the accoutrements of a courtesy call," but he insisted it that "it was designed to inform them that they had a duty to protect records."
Whatever diGenova's intention, however, the call did not spur Gray to issue an immediate order to White House staff about protecting records. According to another newly released document, Gray notified the White House staff about the need to "preserve and maintain documents" only on Dec. 21, five days after diGenova's early warning and only after the White House had received formal notification of the Passportgate investigation.
Later, diGenovas investigation did find that some relevant White House files were erased, but it was not clear if the erasures occurred between the time of diGenova's first call on Dec. 16 and Gray's letter to the staff on Dec. 21. At least some of the erasures were later recovered through technical means.
Gray could not be reached for comment about his recollections of events.
While diGenova's early call may not have prompted an immediate protection order, the call apparently did reassure Gray that the White House had little to worry about.
On Dec. 17, after President Bush heard about the independent counsel appointment, he called Gray, and Gray "said that the special prosecutor [diGenova] is a good and fair person and that the thing is mainly at the State Department -- the handling of the Clinton matter," according to Bush's diary.
Despite those assurances, Baker still fretted about the scandal's threat to his reputation and Bush fumed about the negative press coverage.
In his diary on Dec. 22, the president complained about "an ugly editorial by Mary McGrory, and it will have Jim Baker climbing the wall." McGrory's column had suggested that Baker was a natural suspect in the passport case because "he is known as a meticulous and totally-in-control manager."
To Bush, McGrory's observations were "the meanest, nastiest, ugliest column. She has destroyed me over and over again."
With the start of the Clinton administration, interest in the Bush shenanigans quickly faded, and diGenova moved expeditiously to put the controversy to rest. As part of the investigation, however, diGenova conducted two formal interviews with the ex-president at his office in Houston.
Handwritten notes from the first interview on Oct. 23, 1993, stated that diGenova first assured Bush that his staff lawyers were "all seasoned prof[essional] prosecutors who know what a real crime looks like. [This is] not a gen[eral] probe of pol[itics] in Amer[ica] or dirty tricks, etc., or a general license to rummage in people's personal lives."
The FBI's typewritten report of the interview noted that Bush acknowledged his personal interest in turning up derogatory information about Clinton and having it released, but he denied giving a direct order for the passport search.
"Although he [Bush] did not recall tasking Baker to research any particular matter, he may have asked why the campaign did not know more about Clinton's demonstrating," the FBI report stated. As for hearing about the FOIA requests before the passport search, "President Bush remembered a general discussion that people were trying to get some information although he could provide no details as to who may have mentioned this to him.
"The President advised that he probably would have said, 'Hooray, somebody's going to finally do something about this.' If he had learned that The Washington Times was planning to publish an article, he would have said, 'That's good, it's about time.' Based on his 'depth of feeling' on this issue, President Bush responded to a hypothetical question that he would have recommended getting the truth out if it were legal."
Bush said he could not recall if he had heard about the passport search before it appeared in the press. But he added that he might have indirectly encouraged his subordinates to pursue those anti-Clinton rumors.
"The President added that he would not have been concerned over the legality of the issue but just the facts and what was in the files," the FBI wrote.
"President Bush advised that if he had made some informal statement, although a staffer may have considered the President to have a one-track mind [on the topic], James Baker would not be motivated by such a casual or visceral comment because he would protect the President from rushing off to do something which could cause problems later.
"Although Baker would go along with the President's decision on major issues, President Bush did not think Baker would be motivated to follow up on something the President was nagging about. He [Bush] doubted Baker would have tasked anyone to follow up.
The President stated that Baker would not have been driven by the President to find out about the [Clinton] FOIA requests although Baker may have said that the President had expressed an interest, suggesting that they get something on it."
Bush clearly was disappointed that the searches uncovered so little. "The President described himself as being indignant over the fact that the campaign did not find out what Clinton was doing," the FBI report stated.
Near the end of the interview, Bush voiced his "bitterness" toward several individuals whom he felt contributed to his 1992 defeat. They included Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh; one of Walsh's deputies, James Brosnahan; and Ross Perot. According to the handwritten notes, Bush added that Perot was a "bastard" and "dangerous."
Bush also lashed out at the FBI for investigating Bush campaign officials in Texas over suspicions that they were mounting dirty tricks against Perot.
"Always defended the FBI, but not anymore," Bush was quoted as saying. As the interview ended, two of diGenova's assistants -- Lisa Rich and Laura Laughlin -- asked Bush for autographs, according to the handwritten notes.
After the Bush interviews, diGenova began work on his final report. Despite the evidence that Clinton's files had been exploited to influence the outcome of a presidential election, diGenova concluded that there was no wrongdoing by anyone in the Bush administration.
DiGenova added only "that certain White House personnel may have indirectly encouraged the search for Clinton's passport files by making inquiry about the status of responses to [FOIA] requests." As for the Oval Office, diGenova "found no evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter."
DiGenova reserved his toughest criticism for State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk for suspecting that a crime had been committed in the first place. DiGenova castigated Funk for "a woefully inadequate understanding of the facts."
John Duncan, a senior lawyer in Funk's office, protested diGenova's findings of no criminal wrongdoing.
Astoundingly, [diGenova] has also concluded that no senior-level party to the search did anything improper whatever," Duncan wrote. "The Independent Counsel has provided his personal absolution to individuals who we found had attempted to use their U.S. Government positions to manipulate the election of President of the United States."
It's not clear if President Bush's hardball political style will play out again in his son's presidential campaign.
But the father's two races -- in 1988 and 1992 -- were the training ground where George W. Bush learned the tricks of big-league politics. George W. was considered the "loyalty enforcer" in those two campaigns.
If the 2000 race gets close, one can expect that this new Bush team -- coached by the wily old veteran, George H.W. Bush -- again will toss out the gentlemanly rule book of politics.