On the March 14 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, co-host Sean Hannity attempted to downplay the Bush administration's recent controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys by accusing President Bill Clinton of "fir[ing] the Little Rock U.S. attorney" in 1993 because he had launched an "investigation into ... the Whitewater deal." In fact, as Media Matters for America noted when The Wall Street Journal made a similar claim in a March 14 editorial, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas at the time of Clinton's election -- Charles A. Banks -- had refused to pursue the Whitewater matter, reportedly in defiance of pressure from George H.W. Bush administration officials in search of a pre-election issue with which to tar challenger Clinton. Moreover, as Media Matters has also documented, the extensive investigation into Whitewater -- initiated several years after Clinton took office -- ultimately led the independent counsel to close the probe without charging the Clintons with any wrongdoing.
Hannity also stated that "in the Clinton years, when he first comes into office ... they fired 93 U.S. attorneys," and suggested that Clinton's actions were comparable to Bush's midterm dismissal of eight attorneys. In fact, as Media Matters has noted, a March 14 Washington Post article reported that "legal experts and former prosecutors say the firing of a large number of prosecutors in the middle of a term appears to be unprecedented and threatens the independence of prosecutors." A March 13 McClatchy Newspapers article -- headlined "Current situation is distinct from Clinton firings of U.S. attorneys" -- similarly reported that "[m]ass firings of U.S. attorneys are fairly common when a new president takes office, but not in a second-term administration." The article added that "Justice Department officials acknowledged it would be unusual for the president to oust his own appointees."
In the fall of 1992, I. Jean Lewis, an investigator for the Resolution Trust Corporation, sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department outlining the purported Whitewater conspiracy and naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses. But contrary to Hannity's suggestion that Banks was "investigati[ng] ... the Whitewater deal" at the time Clinton took office, Mollie Dickenson noted in a February 1998 Salon.com article that he had rejected Lewis' referral, citing his belief that "no prosecutable case existed against" the Clintons. Journalist Joe Conason further notes in his upcoming March 19 New York Observer column that Banks was a Republican appointee who had been "recently selected" by Bush "as a potential nominee for the federal bench." According to Conason, after Banks determined in early October 1992 that the Clinton referral "lacked merit" and dismissed the original request for an investigation, "officials in the Bush White House and the Justice Department heard whispers about" it. Attorney General William Barr then "ordered" Banks "to act" on the referral and launch an investigation into the Clintons' connections to Whitewater in late October 1992, "no later than two weeks before Election Day." According to Conason, Banks replied:
I know that in investigations of this type ... the first steps, such as issuance of ... subpoenas ... will lead to media and public inquiries of matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation in today's modern political climate all too often publicly purport to 'legitimize what can't be proven' ....
"I must opine that after such a lapse of time, the insistence for urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election ....
"For me personally to participate in an investigation that I know will or could easily lead to the above scenario ... is inappropriate. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy.
Following Clinton's replacement of Banks with Paula Casey, Lewis again attempted to persuade the U.S. attorney's office to investigate the Whitewater matter. But Casey also declined to pursue the case, citing Banks' analysis, as Conason and political columnist Gene Lyons noted in their book, The Hunting of the President (Thomas Dunne Books, 2000):
Lewis became particularly exercised after Paula Casey, citing analyses by Justice Department experts and former attorney Charles Banks, turned down her original 1992 referral for a second time. [Page 95]
Further, Robert Ray, the third and final Republican-appointed counsel assigned to investigate the Clintons, announced on September 20, 2000, that he had closed the probe after concluding that "the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that either President or Mrs. Clinton knowingly participated in any criminal conduct."
From the March 14 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:
HANNITY: You know something, Mary? We're now at the stage where, you know, not only is Bush wrong on everything, he's responsible for anything that goes wrong. You know, Hillary's statement as quoted in the -- in the Daily News today, you know, basically blaming Bush for cuts to community policing programs leading, you know, to this incident.
You look at, for example, in -- in the Clinton years, when he first comes into office, he, along with Janet Reno, they fired 93 U.S. attorneys. In the case of the investigation into Arkansas and the Whitewater deal, they fire the Little Rock U.S. attorney. They replaced that U.S. attorney with a former law student of Mr. Clinton's. And, yet, they -- they're trying to make hay on everything.
Is this part of a strategy -- keep the Republicans off balance, on defense, create an impression of impropriety at all times? Is this part of the 2008 strategy?
MARY MATALIN (Republican strategist): Well, of course it is. And it's not a secret. It's not part of the vast left-wing conspiracy, which is far more tangible than anything she thinks is happening on the right, or they do. They -- It's an announced strategy. They've said it forever. They said it in the election. They pronounced it when they came into office, that they weren't going to govern, they were going to investigate, and they were going to bash Bush. And if he could prove to them he could walk on water, they'd say, "Well, you can't swim," as the old political adage goes.