Ask George Stephanopoulos

George Stephanopoulis reports on the U.S. Attorney firings for ABC without disclosing his role in the Clinton administration’s attorney purge.

From an op-ed piece by Mark Lasswell:

..Mr. Stephanopoulos might be able to help viewers understand why the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration has been by far the biggest television-news story lately, and yet when dozens of federal prosecutors were fired during the Clinton administration, it was barely noticed by network newscasts. According to the Tyndall Report, which tracks this sort of thing, during the week of March 12-16, the three network evening newscasts spent a total of 45 minutes on the prosecutors story, with the war in Iraq placing second at 16 minutes. “World News with Charles Gibson” logged 13 of those 45 minutes on the prosecutors.

By contrast, in 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno’s wholesale firing of U.S. attorneys appointed by George H.W. Bush was a non-story on the ABC evening news — literally a non-story, according to records kept by the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive, as in zero coverage. CBS also skipped it; NBC gave it 20 seconds.

At the risk of putting a damper on all the fun, here’s a primer on the sort of White House experience that ABC’s chief Washington correspondent could draw on to enlighten viewers.

First of all, misleading messages from a hapless attorney general can be corrected: Janet Reno had only been on the job for a matter of days when she announced the blanket dismissal of U.S. attorneys in March 1993, and she bungled the job, letting word get out that prosecutors involved in significant investigations would be allowed to complete them. As was noted at the time, this would have meant that an ongoing investigation of the powerful House Democrat and vital Clinton ally, Dan Rostenkowski, by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jay Stephens, would continue uninterrupted.

The White House, or rather Mr. Stephanopoulos, quickly torpedoed that idea. In a press briefing, he announced that among the prosecutors whose resignations had been demanded, “there are at least some people who are in the middle of trials right now who will not be replaced.” Trials, he specified, not investigations. “Interestingly,” a Hartford Courant editorial noted back then, “Miss Reno didn’t explain the impending dismissals. The president’s personal spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, did the fast talking.”

Lesson number two: When the White House comes under suspicion of politicizing the process of replacing federal prosecutors, don’t deny it. In 1993, when a reporter asked Mr. Stephanopoulos about the origins of Ms. Reno’s decision to jettison all the U.S. attorneys, the exchange went like this:

Mr. Stephanopoulos: I assume she was in discussions with the White House Counsel, but it is her decision.

Q: Can you tell us whether the White House Counsel may have suggested the idea?

Mr. Stephanopoulos: I don’t know if he specifically suggested it, but I am certain that he was consulted.

Q: Would it be fair then to say that after consultations with the White House she decided to do this?

Mr. Stephanopoulos: It would be fair to say that she consulted with the White House before making the announcement.

Q: And the White House approved.

Q: The decision or the announcement?

Mr. Stephanopoulos: The White House did not disagree.

Q: I want to thank you for your persistence — (Laughter).

Finally, keep an eye on the aftermath: Jay Stephens put his U.S. attorney job behind him and was soon hired by the Resolution Trust Corp., an independent regulatory agency, to investigate claims stemming from the collapse of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. For those who have filed away their memories of the Clintons’ Arkansas years, Madison Guaranty was connected to the Rose Law Firm, Hillary Clinton’s former employer, and the firm would be an area of interest for any investigator.

Then, in February 1994, according to the Dallas Morning News, the RTC got an irate conference call from Harold Ickes, the White House deputy chief of staff, and George Stephanopoulos, by then President Clinton’s senior advisor, to protest the hiring. Amid reports that they tried to have Mr. Stephens fired — it would have been his second pink slip in less than a year — the White House issued a statement that Mr. Ickes and Mr. Stephanopoulos had “no recollection” of making such a request.

Mr. Stephanopoulos long ago changed jobs, too, but plenty of members of Congress remain right where they were in 1993. And that may be the only lesson we need regarding the nature of the fired-prosecutors “scandal”: Then as now, Democrats control both houses, but in 2007 they have a Republican administration to make miserable.

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