Reno: Outsider on Inside

Attorney general is caught between GOP and White House on prosecutor decision.

To Senate majority leader Trent Lott, she is "General Stonewall Reno." To House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the US attorney general is "a fool" for not appointing an independent counsel to investigate alleged White House violations of campaign-finance laws.

To defenders she is a solid public servant acting in the deliberate manner that is her hallmark. She herself has said that no one can shout loud enough to sway her fund-raising probe decision.

Once again, Janet Reno is standing in the eye of a Washington hurricane. The Joe Friday-like ex-Florida prosecutor has experienced an extraordinary amount of upheaval during her Justice Department tenure, from the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, to the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate fellow cabinet members, to today's campaign-cash controversy.

But now she's facing arguably her biggest problem yet. By Dec. 2, she will have to decide whether to ask for the appointment of another special prosecutor - this one to look at the man who brought her to Washington in 1993 to be the nation's law-enforcement chief.

Whether she does, or doesn't, the recent spotlight has made one thing clear: The Clinton-Reno relationship is far more distant than that of many presidents and attorneys general.

"This has been a cold and somewhat official relationship from the beginning," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "But it has meant that [Reno] is more independent than most attorneys general."

Ms. Reno's latest action on the campaign controversy came Wednesday. Faced with a legal deadline on whether to expand the scope of the investigation into the legality of fund-raising calls the president may have made during the 1996 campaign, Reno decided to delay until Dec. 2.

In a separate but parallel probe, the Justice Department is investigating similar phone calls that may have been made by Vice President Al Gore.

One reason for the delay in the presidential investigation is new evidence, such as recently uncovered videos of White House coffees with contributors. Reno knew nothing about the existence of these tapes until last week - a delay she admits made her mad.

But critics claim another reason for the delay is foot-dragging. At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois complained that the Justice Department has taken the narrowest possible interpretation of the law.

Reno rejected that characterization, pointing out that she has not hesitated to ask for appointment of independent prosecutors for fellow cabinet members, such as Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros.

One little-noticed aspect of this case, Washington insiders say, is the real Reno-Clinton relationship. The pair could hardly be more different. Clinton is the consummate political creature. Reno is plodding and deliberative. Furthermore, they have a somewhat icy history. By all accounts, they are one of the most unchummy teams in the modern political era.

Presidents nearly always choose an attorney general to be a confidant, a political adviser, a member of the inner circle. John F. Kennedy's brother Robert Kennedy, who served as attorney general, is a prime example. So are Nixon's choice of friend John Mitchell, and Reagan's choice of California ally Edwin Meese.

Reno was Clinton's third choice for attorney general in 1993 - someone the president did not know personally and who was selected quickly when two other nominees failed to pass muster. Even some some sympathizers say Reno's by-the-numbers attitude can be a liability.

"I don't think she understands politics at all," says a senior Hill staffer. "She comes up here and talks to members of Congress who ask difficult policy questions about spending priorities, say on prisons or prevention, and she says things like 'I'm going to look at all the facts and then make a determination about what the right thing to do is.' But there isn't 'one right thing' anymore."

The real difference between the two is the different cultures of the White House and Justice Department, says a former Democratic official. The Justice Department is a legalistic institution that focuses on process. The White House responds to political tides and features staffers impatient with time-consuming approaches.

Yet despite a steady series of White House efforts to jettison Reno, or pave the way for her departure, the two have stayed together. "It would look bad for the White House to get rid of the person in charge of so many ongoing investigations," says one ex-Justice Department official.

Reno has weathered hearings on her role in the fiery tragedy in Waco, and the excessive use of force by federal authorities in the Ruby Ridge standoff. She appointed a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of Clinton impropriety as Arkansas governor in the Whitewater case.

The pressures are only likely to build. "The question is not her integrity," says a House GOP staffer. "It is her competence."

"Look," a Democratic Party source counters, "if Reno jumped in with both feet and said she wanted a certain outcome by a certain time she would be roasted for trying to steer or direct the investigation. This is a no-win situation for her."

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