Donorgate: Why Janet Reno Can't Win

From her first days as Attorney General, when she took responsibility for the Waco debacle, Janet Reno has been a political untouchable. White House aides can gripe that she's not a team player and has been too quick to seek independent counsels. And Capitol Hill Republicans can dub her "Stonewall Reno" for resisting pressure to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the curious fund-raising of the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1996. But all that sniping just bounces off Reno's back. Or did. Now her charmed political career may be over.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, the Justice Dept. prosecutor investigating alleged campaign-finance abuses, are both calling for the appointment of an independent counsel. Caught between an increasingly hostile Republican Congress and an increasingly worried White House, Reno is in a lose-lose situation.

KNIVES OUT. The Attorney General, who earlier this year declared that there was insufficient evidence to warrant an independent probe into '96 fund-raising, is reviewing new information uncovered by LaBella's task force and has promised a decision by the end of August. That gives her an opportunity to execute a political pirouette--something that many legal experts expect her to do. But whatever option Reno chooses, her mystique of independence is sure to be damaged. "She's in a tough situation," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber. "She may have to tap her reserve of support among the American people."

The stakes are enormous for President Clinton and even higher for Al Gore. In fact, the Vice-President's political future may hang in the balance. An independent counsel with wide latitude could target Gore for making '96 fund-raising calls from his office or for collecting questionable contributions at a Buddhist temple in California. Such a probe--even if it ultimately uncovers no wrongdoing--would cast a shadow over Gore's 2000 Presidential bid. It would also hamper his fund-raising and encourage reformers such as former Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) (story below), Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to seek the nomination. That might lead to a messy primary battle that rehashes previous campaign abuses and hurts Gore's general election prospects if he does win the nomination.

Republicans are clearly relishing the possibilities. That's why they'll be furious if Reno just says no--or authorizes a limited probe that doesn't zero in on Clinton or Gore. If she resists, some Republicans are ready to demand she resign. The House Government Reform & Oversight Committee already has cited her for contempt of Congress for refusing to surrender a confidential memo by LaBella.

The Clintonites, for their part, insist that they are not trying to lean on Reno. But they sent a not-so-subtle message to LaBella: He was denied the assignment he coveted, U.S. Attorney in San Diego.

LITTLE CHOICE. Republican threats and White House heat may not matter much at this point, though. The consensus among political observers is that Reno has little choice but to name yet another independent counsel. Their reasoning: It will be difficult for her to dismiss the strong recommendations of both her FBI chief and her own task force. "For political and legal reasons, she has got to do it," says C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President George Bush. "She would be ridiculed if she didn't."

In the end, whatever decision Reno reaches will be called both cowardly and courageous. The only question is whether it will be Democrats or Republicans demanding her scalp.