Russert -- followed by NPR's Liasson -- misrepresented Clinton letter to National Archives

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

During the October 30 Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert falsely claimed that a 2002 letter written by President Clinton to the National Archives "specifically ask[ed] that any communication between [then-first lady Hillary Clinton] and the president not be made available to the public until 2012" before asking Sen. Clinton, "Would you lift that ban?" In fact, President Clinton's letter did not ask that such communications "not be made available," but rather listed them as documents to be "considered for withholding" [emphasis added]. Clinton Records representative Bruce Lindsey said that Clinton asked in the letter that such communications be designated as part of a "subset" of presidential records "that should be reviewed prior to release."

During the October 30 Democratic presidential debate, co-moderator and NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert misrepresented a 2002 letter written by former President Bill Clinton to the National Archives and Records Administration. Addressing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Russert falsely claimed that the letter "specifically ask[ed] that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012" before asking Sen. Clinton, "Would you lift that ban?" In fact, President Clinton's letter did not ask that such communications "not be made available" but rather listed them as one of several categories of information in which documents should be "considered for withholding" [emphasis added]. In a November 2 statement, William J. Clinton Records representative Bruce Lindsey said that rather than prohibiting the release of communications between Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton had merely designated such communications as part of a "subset" of presidential records "that should be reviewed prior to release."

Nonetheless, National Public Radio's (NPR) Mara Liasson uncritically aired Russert's false assertion that Clinton's 2002 letter constituted a "ban" -- Russert's word -- on the disclosure of communications between Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

During the debate, Russert and Clinton had the following exchange:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I'd like to follow up because, in terms of your experience as first lady, in order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?

CLINTON: Well, actually, Tim, the Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves. There's about 20 million pieces of paper there and they are moving, and they are releasing as they do their process. And I am fully in favor of that. Now, all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care, those are already available. Others are becoming available. And I think that, you know, the Archives will continue to move as rapidly as the circumstances and processes demand.

RUSSERT: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?

CLINTON: Well, that's not my decision to make. And I don't believe that any president or first lady ever has. But certainly we'll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.

Clinton's 2002 letter, however, does not appear to have imposed a "ban" on the public release of "any communication between you [Sen. Clinton] and the president."

The relevant portion of the letter addressed a provision of the Presidential Records Act -- 44 U.S.C. § 2204(a)(5) -- that allows a former president to delay for up to 12 years after leaving office the release of "confidential communications requesting or submitting advice, between the President and his advisers, or between such advisers."

In an August 19, 1994, letter to the National Archives, President Clinton had instructed that access to all such records -- as well as other categories of records -- be restricted for the full 12 years after the end of his presidency (ultimately, until 2012). But in the November 6, 2002, letter that Russert referred to during the debate, Clinton instructed the archives to "eas[e]" the restrictions set forth in the 1994 letter. Specifically, Clinton wrote that with respect to 2204 (a) (5), "information should generally be considered for withholding only if it contains" records in at least one of several categories, including "communications directly between the President and the First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature."

In other words, while Russert claimed the letter banned the release of communications between Bill and Hillary Clinton, the letter actually stated that such information should be considered for withholding.

In a November 2 statement, as reprinted on the Daily Kos blog, Lindsey -- a former Clinton White House aide who reviews Clinton administration records set to be released by the archives before they become available to the public -- explained the 2002 letter as follows:

In his 2002 letter to the Archives, Bill Clinton authorized NARA to release substantive policy materials that involve confidential advice from his advisors, including Senator Clinton. No other President subject to the Presidential Records Act has authorized such a broad release. He has designated a subset of these materials (including, among others, negative or derogatory information about individuals involved in the appointment process, confidential foreign policy communications, and communications between the President and Vice President, First Lady, or former presidents or vice presidents) that should be reviewed prior to release. Documents in these categories have been released and are readily available in the Library at this moment.

Lindsey further stated that Bill Clinton "has not blocked the release of a single document from his Library" and that "[c]ontrary to recent reports, Bill Clinton has not asked that records related to communications with Senator Clinton be withheld." Similarly, Hillary Clinton has stated that Bill Clinton "has never blocked a record ever."

On the November 2 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, national political correspondent Mara Liasson uncritically aired Russert's false assertion that "there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012." Liasson added, "Bill Clinton has asked the archives not to release personal correspondence between himself and his wife."

Media Matters for America has documented other misrepresentations related to Hillary Clinton made by Russert during the debate.

From the November 2 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition:

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton's advisers say her steely performance under withering fire from almost all of her male rivals and the male moderator of Tuesday's debate shows how tough she is. But her opponents are saying that her answers resurrected the old stereotype: that she can be secretive, less than candid, and that she wants to have it both ways. They point to the exchange over the National Archives' release of her husband's papers. Here's how it started: with a question from MSNBC moderator Tim Russert.

[begin audio clip]

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, in order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?

CLINTON: Well, actually, Tim, the archives is moving as rapidly as the archives move. There's about 20 million pieces of paper there. And they are moving and they are releasing as they do their process, and I am fully in favor of that.

RUSSERT: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?

CLINTON: Well, that's not my decision to make, but, certainly, we'll move as quickly as our circumstances in the processes of the National Archives permits.

[end audio clip]

LIASSON: Then, [Sen.] Barack Obama [D-IL] jumped in.

OBAMA [audio clip]: Now we have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history. And not releasing, I think, these records, at the same time, Hillary, as you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem. Part of what we have to do is invite the American people back to participate in their government again. Part of what we need to do is rebuild trust in our government again.

LIASSON: While it's true that the Bush administration has made the National Archives process for releasing presidential records more cumbersome and time-consuming, it's also true that Bill Clinton has asked the archives not to release personal correspondence between himself and his wife.

Carl Bernstein is the author of A Woman in Charge, a biography of Hillary Clinton.

BERNSTEIN: Now she's got herself in the position where she has been apparently, again, disingenuous by saying, oh, well, it's all up to the archives. It's not all up to the archives. It's up to her husband. I would think that she certainly has the wherewithal to say, hey, Bill, why don't we put these records out there?

LIASSON: In fact, the National Archives is ready to release 26,000 pages of Bill Clinton's records, but it's waiting for the green light from Clinton's lawyer, Bruce Lindsey, who has not finished his review of the papers. So the delay is not, as Senator Clinton claimed on Tuesday, completely beyond her control.

Clinton's opponents were quick to predict that the flap over the archives would dent her claim to electability. They say it was deja vu all over again, recalling fights during the Clinton administration over access to documents like the couple's tax records or Mrs. Clinton's law firm billing records.

As if on cue, the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote that her answers in the debate were, quote, "Clintonesque." Carl Bernstein doesn't think we've heard the last of this particular issue.

BERNSTEIN: In that debate the other night, the issue was finally raised. Hey, what do we want? Do we want another president that is not candid, that is not committed to openness? Do we really want another one after the Bush presidency? And that is what's going to haunt her, I suspect, through this campaign and it has changed the dynamic.

LIASSON: It changed the dynamic from what was looking like a pre-ordained coronation to a vigorous fight for the nomination. The debate on Tuesday was the first time that Clinton's Democratic rivals were able to shine a spotlight on some of the weaknesses of a candidate who, until now, has been an unscathed front-runner.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

Posted In
Elections
Network/Outlet
NBC, NPR
Person
Tim Russert, Mara Liasson
Stories/Interests
Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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