More previously secret files from President Bill Clinton’s eight years in office went public Friday, offering new insight on when he turned to first lady Hillary Clinton for advice, the pitfalls the president’s advisers saw in some of his Supreme Court nominees and how a news story prompted the president to express doubts about deadly bombings the CIA had pinned on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The roughly 1,000 pages of records comprise the sixth batch of files which archivists at the Clinton Library had withheld as sensitive communications between Clinton and his top advisers.
Under federal law such files are supposed to be made public 12 years after a president leaves office. However, the Clinton-related files languished for more than a year past that point until POLITICO reported in February that 33,000 pages of records were in limbo. Days later, the National Archives released the first batch of files.
All in all, approximately 26,000 pages of “previously-restricted records” have now been released. President Barack Obama’s White House has also repeatedly extended the deadline to complete the review of the documents for possible assertions of executive privilege by Obama or Clinton. At least five such extensions have been granted this year, with the last reported one running through this Sunday.
Here’s POLITICO’s look at the juiciest details in the latest Clinton document dump:
Querying Hillary on abortion
While the newest batch of memos contain few mentions of Hillary Clinton, they do indicate that on one of the most controversial social issues — abortion — her views were important to her husband.
On a 1993 policy memo discussing options for the so-called Hyde Amendment — which prohibited federal funding for abortion in most instances — President Clinton balked when advisers asked him to decide whether to lay down a clear position in public in advance of likely negotiations with Congress on the issue.
“What does Hillary think,” the president wrote next to the space for a decision. The memo does not reflect the-then first lady’s views on the point, but says the overall policy direction on abortion was developed by a group that included her deputy chief of staff, Melanne Verveer.
The memo says that group decided abortion-related issues should be relegated to the back-burner for a while, at least publicly.
“There is a broad consensus that while we should deal with choice issues in a principled and consistent manner, we must make every effort to lower their public profile for the remained of this year,” Domestic Policy Adviser Bill Galston wrote.
Galston said the advisers wanted to keep the focus on Clinton’s economic plan (containing a controversial tax hike) and to downplay cultural issues in general.
“It is essential to regain our balance on cultural matters,” Galston wrote. “During your campaign, you reassured the American people that you identified with mainstream/heartland values, but the first four months of the administration have sown some doubts on that score. There may be worse to come.
“We face the possibility of a summer in which the political dialogue is largely framed by issues such as gays in the military; political correctness on campus, quotas, and reproductive services contained within a health care proposal….We should not go out of our way to emphasize issues that reinforce the impression that we are somehow outside the cultural mainstream,” he added.
Clinton raised doubt on bin Laden’s role in embassy bombings
After reading an April 1999 New York Times article portraying as shaky the evidence that bin Laden was involved in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a year earlier, Clinton was so startled that he scribbled a note to his national security adviser, Sandy Berger.
“Sandy…If this article is right, the CIA sure overstated its case to me — what are the facts? — BC,” Clinton wrote.
The note certainly gained the attention of Clinton’s top advisers. “Dick/Dan/Steve — I need serious memo in response, by early next week,” someone — apparently Berger — wrote, forwarding the concerns on to Clinton aides Richard Clarke, Dan Benjamin and Steven Simon.
It’s somewhat surprising that the chief executive may have harbored doubt in bin Laden’s connection to the embassy bombings since he was indicted in November 1998 by a federal grand jury on more than 200 counts of murder stemming from the embassy attacks.
How the Clinton aides responded to the president’s question about the Times story that was a summary of a PBS Frontline documentary is — for now — unknown. Cataloging information released by the Clinton Library shows several memos produced about two weeks later. They all remain classified on national security grounds, according to the National Archives.
Clinton aides discussed Sotomayor’s SCOTUS chances
When Clinton nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 1997, Republicans dragged their feet — in part out of fears that job could be a precursor to nominating her to the Supreme Court, where she’d make history as the first Latina. That is, of course, just what happened when President Barack Obama nominated her in 2009.
But the newly released files show that Clinton White House aides were already strategizing about a possible Supreme Court nomination when her appeals court nomination was pending.
“A number of her other writings could be controversial if she were nominated to the Supreme Court,” an unsigned, undated memo in the Clinton files concludes. “Her fierce independence, and her non-nonsense style are admirable, but her nomination to the Supreme Court may prompt a vicious attack by Senate Republicans.”
The papers also contain a lot of back and forth between Sotomayor and White House lawyers while her 2nd Circuit nomination was pending. In one note about updating her financial statement for the Senate, she wrote: “I expect no appreciable changes in the near future (unless I ‘hit’ the lottery) but doing the math each time is burdensome (when you do not like math).”
Sotomayor actually did go on to win the lottery, or more accurately, a jackpot. A financial disclosure filed at the time of her Supreme Court nomination by Obama disclosed she won $8,283 in November 2008. A White House aide said she netted the sum while gambling at a Florida casino with her mother.
Frank warnings on Ginsburg
A top aide to Clinton predicted a rough ride for Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court in 1993, warning that the future justice’s demeanor was often “laconic” and that she was fighting the advice of White House handlers.
In a memo entitled, “Judge Ginsburg: Performance Pitfalls,” White House lawyer Ron Klain warned communications director David Gergen that the confirmation process posed a series of dangers.
The lead item complained about Ginsburg’s tendency to present a full-throated defense of American Civil Liberties Union positions — something perhaps less than shocking since she spent much of her career as a women’s rights lawyer for the civil liberties group.
“Judge Ginsburg has a strong tendency to defend the ACLU position” on issues like the death penalty, legalizing prostitution, decriminalizing marijuana and decriminalizing the distribution of pornography to minors,” Klain wrote. “She has an instinct for defending some rather extreme liberal views on these questions.”
Klain also predicted trouble because of Ginsburg’s attitude towards the Senate. “Her hostility to the process…is evident,” he wrote. “The Judge has trouble addressing larger issues and speaking to core values….Her failure to make eye contact, her halting speech, her ‘laconic’ nature….is not helpful.”
However, Klain also warned Gergen to “be cautious” in trying to raise the issues with Ginsburg. “Ginsburg views the White House’s interest and her interests as being at odds with each other,” the White House lawyer wrote, with the White House seeking to present her as a moderate and her interest in maintaining dignity and independence.
At her Senate hearings, Ginsburg indeed brushed off many of the senators queries, but she fielded others and ultimately won confirmation, 96-3.
Sinking Lani Guinier
One of the most searing episodes for liberals early in Clinton’s presidency was his decision to abandon his nomination of legal scholar Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A memo released Friday may well be the dagger that felled Guinier’s nomination after her writings on issues like affirmative action became the subject of public controversy.
The harsh, four-page memo to Clinton from Domestic Policy Adviser Bill Galston — a key player in the decidedly moderate Democratic Leadership Council before coming to the White House—is brutal towards Guinier. Galston pulls no punches, declaring that “The perspective she would bring to the Justice Department would ill serve the interests of our country and your administration.”
Galston said Guinier’s view that the civil rights laws require measures that give proportional representation to minorities and in some cases a veto over majority action were at odds with the history of those laws. “Prof. Guinier’s theory of the Voting Rights Act flows from a startling worldview that would be rejected by most of her fellow citizens as well as most members of your party and administration,” he wrote, calling Guinier’s views “far outside the mainstream and very hard to defend.”
Galston predicted that if Clinton pushed forward with the nomination, much of his agenda could be derailed. “You have the opportunity to refurbish your credentials as a different kind of Democrat who governs from the progressive center of our country,” the adviser wrote. “This is the wrong fight at the wrong time.”
The documents released Friday also include a series of heavily-marked up drafts of Clinton’s remarks withdrawing his support for Guinier, while trying to prevent a backlash from civil rights advocates and African Americans.
Two big vetoes that almost didn’t happen
The new batch of records dramatize how close Clinton came to signing two big pieces of legislation: a measure that would have made it a felony in virtually all instances for government officials to leak classified information and a hotly-disputed bill to rein in class-action lawsuits.
In both cases, the files show that Clinton advisers prepared and repeatedly revised statements that would have explained the president’s decisions to sign the measures — something he never did.
Some drafts of the proposed statements on the anti-leak provisions in the Intelligence Authorization Act sent to Clinton in 2000 would have urged prosecutors to apply the provision sparingly and to rely primarily on the employee disciplinary system rather than criminal prosecution. The language appears to have been so thoroughly and repeatedly revised that one wonder if the aides convinced themselves in the process that the legislation was unwise.
John Podesta, then chief of staff to Clinton and now a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, has taken credit for convincing Clinton to veto the measure despite urging from across the intelligence community that he sign it. Podesta argued that the legislation could allow former aides to be prosecuted by a successor administration for political reasons.
The proposed presidential signing statements for the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act appear to have resulted in similar, if not greater, contention. They apparently circulated not only to Clinton’s advisers but to a couple of outside law firms, including Covington & Burling, according to fax data lines on the documents.
Clinton was to say he had “mixed feelings” about the bill and to boast that his proposed budget would give the Securities and Exchange Commission resources to protect investors who could otherwise have sued in court. Next to that assertion someone wrote,”Bullshit….the budget remains flat.”
After interventions by class-action lawyers, many of whom were large donors to Democratic Party causes, Clinton vetoed the bill on December 19, 1995. The next day the House overrode the president’s veto and the Senate followed suit two days later, making the measure one of only two vetoes overridden by Congress during Clinton’s presidency.
Judges and money
The documents also show Clinton’s official advisers sometimes gave the president information on campaign contributions by potential judicial nominees. It’s not clear whether the information was supposed to paint the nominee in a favorable light or as a warning to the president about possible criticism or, perhaps, both.
In a memo recommending the nomination of Texas lawyer Jorge Rangel to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, top White House officials wrote: “In the campaign finance area, it is our information that Rangel and his wife have given $10,000 to the DNC, $2,000 to your campaign, and $1,500 to the August birthday celebration.”
Clinton nominated Rangel to the 5th Circuit in July 1997. He never received a hearing and asked that his nomination be withdrawn at the end of 1998.
More jokes Clinton never delivered
As with past Clinton Library releases, many of the documents include draft after draft of Clinton speeches, especially for major events. Most of the revisions address arcane policy points, while others reflect differences in taste. Changes to the humorous speeches the president delivered to large Washington dinners show what jokes were considered fair game and which were over the line.
The latest batch of documents discloses this joke cut from a Clinton speech to the Alfalfa Club in January 1997:
“I remember talking to Dick Morris on the phone one night. He kept saying, ‘Move a little to the right, move a little to the right.’ I thought he was talking to me.”
Morris resigned as an adviser to Clinton in August 1996, after reports that the political strategist used the services of a prostitute at a luxury Washington hotel. The speech was to take place just as Morris’ book describing his work for Clinton hit the streets. Less than a year later, Clinton would find himself mired in a sex scandal of his own which eventually led to his impeachment.
David Nather, Alex Isenstadt and Jennifer Epstein contributed.