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Burden of Proof

'The Hunting of the President': Was There an Anti-Clinton Conspiracy?

Aired March 15, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

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

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, "The Hunting of the President." A new book alleges a decade-long crusade to weaken and eradicate the power of the Clintons.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Two years ago, when allegations about the president's behavior with former intern Monica Lewinsky first surfaced, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told the "Today" show she knew who was behind it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JANUARY 28, 1998)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FIRST LADY: I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this. They have popped up in other settings. This is -- the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: We all know where those allegations led: to an impeachment trial and rarely-asked questions about presidential conduct and responsibility.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: But what really brought it to that point? According to a new book called, "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton," it was a loosely-constructed network of political operatives, Republican, benefactors and others, who pursued the Clintons with relentless fervor. The culmination of their efforts combined with the president's own indiscretion and recklessness was the impeachment of a president.

COSSACK: And joining us today from New York, authors of that book, Joe Conason of "The New York Observer" and Gene Lyons of the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette."

VAN SUSTEREN: And here in Washington, Ashley King (ph), former Ken Starr deputy Solomon Wisenberg, and Carl Roller (ph). And in our back row, Ben Hubbard (ph) and Joanne Gossens (ph).

Joe, first to you: Why the title, "The Hunting of the President"?

JOE CONASON, CO-AUTHOR, "THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT": Well, there was the "Hunting of the Snark," I guess. The title was conceived by our editor at St. Martin's who said he was -- had been appalled by the treatment of the president and Mrs. Clinton by the media and by the right, and had come up with the title for the book but didn't know the book had been written. And then we got together, and that's -- the title credit belongs to him.

But what the title is talking about is a campaign against the Clintons that began before Bill Clinton even ran for president back in 1989. Our book opens with a scene in Lee Atwater's office, the late Republican strategist and chairman of RNC who had decided to work with people in Arkansas to try to eliminate Clinton as a threat to George Bush's reelection as early as 1989.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why was it there that Lee Atwater thought that Bill Clinton at that time was the main candidate against Bush? I mean, at that time, I don't think Clinton was seriously considered by most of us in the country?

CONASON: Well, but Atwater was an unusually astute political strategist and he had picked out Clinton as a threat because Clinton was a Southern, moderate, Democratic governor, very experienced. He had seen him do retail politics, he knew he was very good and he felt that there was no way to necessarily paint Clinton as just another Northeastern liberal, as he thought he could do to a Bill Bradley or a Michael Dukakis or any number others who the Republicans had successfully defeated that way in the past -- the Walter Mondale.

Bill Clinton was -- looked like a moderate, he sounded like a moderate, he was the ahead of something called the Democratic Leadership Council, which was a group of moderate to conservative Democrats, and yet he had also managed to maintain his ties to liberals in the party, which went back to the McGovern campaign of '72.

COSSACK: Gene, W.C. Fields said, you can't cheat an honest man. I question whether or not, in your theory, that these people went out and hunted Clinton, that, in fact, one of the reasons they hunted him was that he was so huntable and he had so many things in his background that fell into their particular way of thinking.

GENE LYONS, CO-AUTHOR, "THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT": Well, ironically, of course, they ended up exactly where Lee Atwater began, with sex, because, at the end of the day, that was basically all they ever had -- was sex. None of the other charges have panned out. We show in conclusive detail that most of these charges were nonsense to begin with. Almost every aspect of the campaign came down to sex and nothing but sex.

VAN SUSTEREN: Gene, was Paula Jones behind Paula Jones or, in your research for the book, was someone else driving her? LYONS: I could speculate on that, but we try to keep speculation in our book to a minimum. What's clear is that the Troopergate article in "The American Spectator," which was the prime cause of the Paula Jones case...

VAN SUSTEREN: The David Brock one?

LYONS: Yes, the David Brock article. And I believe it was in December of '94 that that was essentially produced by Republican operatives using payola to induce people to say things that then resulted in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Now, I have -- I could speculate...

CONASON: I just -- I want to correct that. It was December '93.

LYONS: December '93, I'm sorry. It's pretty clear that you could make a circumstantial case that, possibly, Paula's name didn't appear in "The American Spectator" by accident, but I have never been able to find any evidence to that effect, so we don't do that speculation in the book.

CONASON: But once the...

LYONS: It appears she was out for herself from the beginning.

CONASON: But, wait a second. But once the Jones case got going -- in other words, once Paula Jones was hooked up with certain right wing attorneys who later turned out to be law partners of Ken Starr -- for example, Richard Porter -- people arranged for her -- once they discovered her, there was a lot of arranging done on her behalf. She was pushed forward at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Richard Mellon Scaife's friend were donating money to her fund, and the whole thing became a right wing cause both openly and secretly where there were a group of right wing attorneys...

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me ask you this...

COSSACK: Let me talk to Sol a second.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me first ask about the husband, though. Was Steve, her husband, though, one of the driving forces besides these conservatives?

CONASON: I believe her husband was. So was Susan Carpenter McMillan, who every viewer of cable television, I'm sure, can remember very vividly. And there were other -- there was a group of right wing attorneys, many of them associated with the Federalist Society, one of them a law partner of Ken Starr's and an old associate of his from the Bush White House who were behind the scenes coaching her official attorneys and making all kinds of arrangements on her behalf.

COSSACK: Sol...

CONASON: Ken Starr was recruited to help write a brief for her in the very beginning by one of those lawyers.

LYONS: I think there's even something...

COSSACK: Just a second. Let me ask Sol Wisenberg a question.

You've heard, now, comments indicating that nothing was found -- at the end of the day, the only thing that was found against the president was sex, and that it was all sort of motivated by people who wished to make sure that the president was not going to become president.

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm not so sure that's a fair summary of what they said. I think...

COSSACK: Agree or disagree?

SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER DEPUTY TO KEN STARR: Oh, of course it's not true. I mean, what you had was, number one, as Susan Webber Wright held when she found the president in contempt -- the only president in history found in contempt -- he intentionally lied to the court in order to obstruct justice. And one of the things that people forget about is that it wasn't just about whether or not he was alone in the hallway with Monica Lewinsky. Recall that Vernon Jordan -- the president asked Vernon Jordan both to -- or approved of Vernon Jordan both helping Ms. Lewinsky get a job during the period where she was going to be a witness, and helping her find an attorney. He knew about those, approved of those.

CONASON: That's absolutely false.

WISENBERG: Thank you. Don't interrupt me.

CONASON: That's absolutely false, Mr. Wisenberg. You know very well...

WISENBERG: Don't interrupt me.

CONASON: You know very well...

WISENBERG: Am I going to be allowed to answer my question?

COSSACK: Let's let Sol finish his question and then we'll give you a chance to respond.

CONASON: OK.

WISENBERG: ... that there is no question that Vernon Jordan informed President Clinton and that President Clinton thanked him -- it's in the record -- for both finding Monica Lewinsky a job and arranging an attorney for her at a time when she was going to be -- was about to lie in the deposition. But what's interesting about that is that when he testified, the president himself -- when he testified in the deposition -- one of the many things he told a lie about was the role of Vernon Jordan. If you look at his answers to the questions -- he's asked, for instance, whether or not anybody has told you that they talked to Ms. Lewinsky in the last two weeks -- excuse me -- and he said, no. And, of course, Vernon Jordan and Betty Currie did. VAN SUSTEREN: And we're going to take a break. And when we -- let me just take us to break and we'll come right back to Joe Conason to respond to Sol Wisenberg. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

The judge in the civil trial of the late Dr. Sam Sheppard interviewed all the jurors after one reported that another said it was hard to believe Sheppard could have killed his wife. The judge determined that the remark was offhand and not a violation of the instruction not to talk about the case during the trial.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log-on to cnn.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

VAN SUSTEREN: The new book is "The Hunting of the President," and the two authors join us today.

Joe, when we went to break I told you that you could respond, I will give you a chance to respond to Sol. Go ahead.

CONASON: Thank you, Greta. Please excuse my interruption, but I think Mr. Wisenberg probably knows that the job search for Monica Lewinsky began long before she was called as a witness in the Jones case, and months before, that in fact, the motivation for seeking the assistance of Vernon Jordan in that job search came from Linda Tripp originally, or it seems to have.

Now, what I think Gene was trying to say was that all of the investigations that the Office of Independent Counsel has undertaken since 1994 boiled down to this instance of lying about sex in the Jones case, which had been basically -- was about to be dismissed on its merits anyway. Paula Jones had lied about what had happened to her as a result of her alleged encounter with the president, in terms of her job discrimination. And moreover, the Office of Independent Counsel has known for a long time that the other -- and had known by them for a long time -- that the other cases that they had been investigating against the president, Mrs. Clinton and others were boiling down to no case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let back up just a second.

CONASON: No case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joe, let me back up one second in your book, and go right, you know, almost back to the beginning. Where your book starts, you and Gene Lyons, it is almost with Peter Smith and Mr. Scaife. Who is Peter Smith? I mean, what would motivate these people to want to hunt the president?

CONASON: Peter W. Smith is a very conservative Chicago financier. He is very wealthy. He was a local confidant and fund raiser for Newt Gingrich. And, as it turned out, he also was a client and friend of a Kirkland & Ellis attorney named Richard Porter, who had worked in the Bush White House, and worked closely with Ken Starr. And he and Starr had gone to Kirkland & Ellis at roughly the same time. Porter was kind of a conspirator against Clinton going back to the '92 campaign, when he and Smith had tried to get people interested in the old wives tale of the supposed "black love child" of Clinton in Arkansas. They pedaled that for a while. They worked hard to get the troopers to talk about Clinton, and eventually Peter Smith paid the troopers for their remarks about Clinton to both -- not just to "The American Spectator" and David Brock, but also "The Los Angeles Times"...

VAN SUSTEREN: Sol, did they...

CONASON: ... and CNN, by the way.

VAN SUSTEREN: But find out if they did pay.

COSSACK: Sol, in terms of the -- what I believe the implication of his earlier answer was that, at one time, therefore, the independent counsel became, in a way, an adjunct of this group of people who were out to get Clinton, and were out as part of this group. Do you accept that?

WISENBERG: I've got a couple of things to say about that. First, let me give you some names of the primary prosecutors in our office who were doing the Lewinsky matter. Tom Beaner (ph), liberal Democrat...

VAN SUSTEREN: But back up, that is later though.

WISENBERG: But wait a second, this is important, people don't know this: Mike Emmick (ph), liberal Democrat; Steve Benhack (ph) -- you know Mike Emmick, Roger -- Steve Benhack, the lawyer who handled Linda Tripp, liberal Democrat; Karen Embergot (ph), liberal Democrat...

VAN SUSTEREN: Wait a second...

WISENBERG: What I resent is this back door effort...

VAN SUSTEREN: Was Porter in contact with Ken Starr at any time during the investigation; do you know that?

WISENBERG: I don't know, and if he was, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it because that brings me to my second point which is, look: When you are running a criminal investigation, you are going to hear from a lot of people. A prosecutor running a criminal investigation...

VAN SUSTEREN: But a lawyer in Chicago? WISENBERG: ... wants evidence from all kinds of people, and as long as you recognize where that is coming from, and as long as you don't fail to disclose or fib about where it is coming from, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

VAN SUSTEREN: But Sol, here is what is troubling to me -- Let me ask you this, this is what is troubling to me: You've got Porter, who is at Kirkland & Ellis, where Starr is; you've got Porter doing work for Peter Smith; you have Peter Smith, according to Joe, paying money to troopers and for the David Brock magazine, it doesn't look particularly as clean as you portray it. It may not be illegal, but it certainly...

COSSACK: What is wrong with them taking information that they receive from those people and vetting it like they would any other witnesses?

VAN SUSTEREN: Because it is creating it, it is when you go out and you pay money to -- and you hide behind magazine articles...

(CROSSTALK)

WISENBERG: And you assume in your question that Ken Starr knew about money being paid. What I don't like is this kind of backdoor, guilt by association...

CONASON: Oh, yeah...

WISENBERG: He knew this guy Richard Porter, who was partner of Ken Starr. The fact is, and any prosecutor will tell you this, there is nothing wrong with taking evidence from anybody.

You know, if Paula Jones had called up and said: I have information. There is all this business about did Ken Starr know that Linda Tripp had been talking to the Paula Jones attorneys. If Paula Jones had called up and said I have airtight information that the president of the United States is trying to convince somebody in my case to commit perjury and obstruction, I would have taken the evidence.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what the problem, it is the appearance issue, Sol, that is why it looks bad. Joe, you want to respond?

WISENBERG: Why? Why does it look bad?

CONASON: Well, the fact of the matter is that the Starr attorneys, according to the "Washington Post," this isn't me, Bob Woodward reported this in 1997 that the Starr attorneys had started to investigate the president's sex life as early as 1997, long before there was any hint of impropriety in the Paula Jones case.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is that true, Sol?

WISENBERG: If Bob Woodward said, I mean, how dare we...

CONASON: No, no, no, I am sorry... VAN SUSTEREN: is it true, Sol?

CONASON: Mr. Wisenberg, your office never denied it, OK? You want deny it now.

WISENBERG: Yeah, well, in a sense, I do want to deny.

COSSACK: Go ahead, Sol.

WISENBERG: Well, no, the office was never investigating per se the sexual activities of...

VAN SUSTEREN: What does that mean, per se?

WISENBERG: Well, there was never a sexual investigation of William Jefferson Clinton. What apparently there was, was during the course, and a very small part of what had been a four-year investigation at that time, some FBI agents asked some troopers questions about a number of people the president knew, and the president was thought to have talked to to see if they had any information that they could talk to them...

VAN SUSTEREN: Was it about sex at all? Any questions...

(CROSSTALK)

LYONS: What the trooper said was that they asked about nothing but sex, period. He was wrong. He lied.

COSSACK: Tell you what. Let's take a break. Let's follow up on this subject when we come back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(AUDIO GAP)

COSSACK: ... trial of the modern era, Bill Clinton is still standing.

Before we decide why he is still standing, I want to, Gene, ask you a question. You've heard Sol respond to your allegation that they were investigating the president for sex. it was early as 1997. He said that that statement is simply not true; they were following other investigations. Your response?

LYONS: Well, I mean. they said themselves that the idea was we were trying to find out who he is intimate with, so we can find out, essentially, what secrets he may have told to people. I mean, that was about the most transparent excuse I've ever seen.

But I wanted to say this: I mean, our book starts 10 years before the impeachment trial; it's not only about the impeachment trial. We never would have gotten to where we were, had Paula Jones not filed with the help of some of the same right-wing attorneys who later were involved in guiding the case into the independent counsel's office, a false legal pleading in which she claimed discrimination against her on the job, which is -- some of this stuff is arguable -- this is not arguable; this is provably false. Her first legal pleading made false claims of what happened to her on the job. That's what started it; that's how the sex charge was moved together with the Whitewater charge, after years of stalling, delay, and absurd investigations in Arkansas,...

VAN SUSTEREN: Gene, now, you are from Arkansas, and the big question...

WISENBERG: Including the conviction of a sitting governor.

VAN SUSTEREN: Gene, since you are from Arkansas, of course, you know, the big question in my mind is, after we've gone through all of this for the last couple years in Washington, why do you think that the president is still standing in the sense that it's been a rather rough few years in the city?

LYONS: Why do I think he's still standing?

VAN SUSTEREN: Why do you think he's still standing, I mean, after all is said and done?

LYONS: Because I think that most people came to the conclusion that anything that could be done to the president and to Monica Lewinsky could also be done to them. I think that most people came to the conclusion that a $200,000 real estate deal should not take six years to investigate. And they came to the conclusion that it was all a great deal about very little.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do the people in Arkansas -- what are they saying today about the president?

LYONS: Pretty much the same thing people nationally are saying, perhaps maybe with more passion. The people that hated him in 1990 hate him now. The people that don't -- have pretty much forgiven their great disappointment in him for his personal behavior.

COSSACK: Sol, it appears that the conclusion of the public at the end of the day was that they didn't trust the president, as the polls indicated, but they still wanted him to remain president, which I thought was interesting. Why do you think the president is still in office?

WISENBERG: I don't know. I mean, that's fine if the public wants to do that. We submitted our report to the House, and we did our duty, and they did their duty. I think it's a number of factors, part of which is -- there's -- it's a great attack machine. President Clinton and his administration have shown the example you gave of the first lady, a really outrageous example I might add, attempted intimidation on the "Today" show. They are very good...

LYONS: ... but not illegal like anything grand jury...

VAN SUSTEREN: Wait, let me stop you right there, Sol. Wait a second. Are you talking about the statement, "the vast right-wing conspiracy"? WISENBERG: I hope you are not accusing of me of illegally releasing grand jury evidence?

VAN SUSTEREN: Are you saying the vast right-wing conspiracy is the statement? Because, if you look at this book and if you look at even Jeffrey Toobin's book, if they -- you follow this thread, and it goes back to these very conservative people. Whether -- you know, whether you agree with the president's conduct with Monica Lewinsky or not, I think...

WISENBERG: No, oh, no, I think going on television and saying that there's a vast right-wing conspiracy; there's nothing wrong with that. She did much more than that; she went on TV and said, in effect: People are going to be held accountable. It was definitely perceived by me...

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you see that, Joe?

WISENBERG: ... as a person...

CONASON: I never saw her say that. I would like to know...

WISENBERG: ... but you've asked why they stated...

(CROSSTALK)

CONASON: I would like to know...

WISENBERG: ... attack people.

CONASON: I would like to know from Mr. Wisenberg: How -- why it has taken, now, four years to establish that there was no case whatsoever in Filegate. It was reported in "The American Spectator"...

VAN SUSTEREN: And you have nine seconds.

CONASON: ... it was reported in "The American Spectator"...

COSSACK: Well, let him answer.

WISENBERG: ... In 1997...

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, you have seven seconds.

WISENBERG: I like to know why you refer to what's notoriously a bank fraud...

CONASON: You don't want to answer...

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: And we are not going to -- you know what, we are not going to get the answer to either question because that's all the time we have for today.

Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Later today on "TALKBACK LIVE," Matt Glavin of the Southeastern Legal Foundation talks about why his group has asked for President Clinton's withdrawal from the Bar. Should the president of the United States no longer be an officer of the court? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

COSSACK: And we will be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We will see you then. We are still standing.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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