On June 22, the fax machine spit out a press release of slightly less than two pages from the Office of the Independent Counsel regarding the long-delayed conclusion of the investigation “commonly known as the Travel Office matter.” It was a statement from independent counsel Robert W. Ray, the successor to Kenneth W. Starr, informing the public that he would seek no indictments and that the matter is now “closed.”
Apart from its potential impact on the New York Senate race, there wasn’t really much drama left in this denouement. Exactly like the F.B.I. files case, which the O.I.C. officially closed three months ago, the decision against any prosecutions in the so-called Travelgate probe has been “commonly known” for a long, long time.
Mr. Ray burdened his announcement with nine paragraphs of explanation. He complained about legal resistance by the White House, as if that might excuse the incredible delay in reporting his office’s failure to uncover any crime. The truth is that Mr. Starr gave up on both these phony cases well over two years ago and should have dropped them promptly. Instead he left Mr. Ray the onerous tasks of cleaning up this partisan mess and justifying the messiness.
At a cost of roughly $1 million per paragraph, give or take a million, the O.I.C.’s Travel Office press release is surely one of the most expensive exercises in the history of bureaucratic prose. A more complete version will be made available, at a somewhat lower cost per word, to the Special Division, the judicial panel that oversees independent counsels; and several months from now, if the Special Division sees fit to release it, the taxpayers may have a chance to peruse that document.
But why wait for such details and facts? Details tend to clutter a good story, and facts, as another President once said, are stupid things.
Besides, the O.I.C. press release seemed to invite the headline that appeared the following day in the New York Post , accompanied by a suitably unflattering picture of Mrs. Clinton: “Good Liar.”
The wording of Mr. Ray’s statement- “insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt”-seemed to encourage the instant tabloid reversal of her exoneration, and elsewhere raised questions about the apparent insinuation of guilt that accompanied the formal acknowledgment of innocence.
On the evening of June 23, some of those questions were put directly to Mr. Ray-who had embarked on a television blitz of dubious propriety-by Margaret Warner, the co-anchor of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer . Scrupulously but bluntly, she pressed the independent counsel for a fuller accounting, and his responses seemed to simultaneously undermine and bolster the belligerent journalistic interpretations of his official statement.
As he told Ms. Warner, “we did review [Mrs. Clinton’s] testimony, and we reviewed it thoroughly after an extensive investigation. We determined that no jury, based upon the evidence that we would be able to present, would convict [her]. Once having made that judgment, it was appropriate … to remove the lingering cloud that an investigation creates.”
He then proceeded to re-create that cloud by insisting that Mrs. Clinton had played a substantial role in dismissing the Travel Office employees through conversations with various members of the White House staff, although he found that she had spoken only once on the subject with David Watkins, the presidential assistant who actually carried out the firings. “We can have [a] discussion about whether that was a direct or indirect role,” he added.
“But remember,” Mr. Ray continued, “that’s just the beginning of the process. That was what caused an investigation.…My job was a very limited one. And that was simply to determine based upon the testimony and the statements that she made with regard to that role, whether or not that testimony was knowingly false. And we emphatically found that the answer to that question was no. ” [Emphasis added.]
Moments later, however, he returned again to the innuendo-laden locution of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” leaving Ms. Warner slightly puzzled. “Are you trying to imply something without actually saying it?” she asked.
“What I’m trying to say is that a prosecutor makes a judgment about evidence … whether or not that would be sufficient to persuade a jury to convict,” he replied. “Once I’ve made that judgment, there are no further judgments for a prosecutor to make. I’m not in the business as a prosecutor of deciding whether or not someone is exonerated in that sense.”
No indeed, he isn’t in that business at all. In fact, Mr. Ray seems to believe that he is in the business of influencing an election by ensuring that exoneration, as normally understood, is impossible. And he is perfectly willing to leave further judgments to the national media, where complexity gets short shrift and the presumption of innocence doesn’t even get lip service.