As political leaders from both sides of the aisle rushed to applaud the Bush administration’s Jan. 11 nomination of attorney Michael Chertoff as the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, one powerful Democrat was missing from the cheering squad: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While New York’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer, took just seven minutes to issue a giddy paean to Mr. Chertoff, Mrs. Clinton waited until midday to issue a decidedly cool, neutral statement. And though she avoided the kind of prickly language that would suggest she still carried a grudge against Mr. Chertoff-who played a leading role in the Whitewater investigations that roiled the Clinton administration for years-she also avoided praising the nominee. Instead, Mrs. Clinton seems to have chosen a third path-call it détente-indicating that while she may never feel warm and fuzzy about Mr. Chertoff, she could certainly work with him.
“The Secretary of Homeland Security plays a very important role in ensuring the security of New York and the nation, which is why I believe that any nomination to such a position merits careful consideration,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I look forward to meeting with Judge Chertoff in the very near future to discuss many important issues, including the specific homeland-security needs of New York as well as the many homeland-security challenges confronting our nation.”
Mrs. Clinton’s statement came at the end of a long day of speculation about how she would respond to the news that the President had tapped one of her arch foes for a top cabinet post. After all, the two have a long history, and Mrs. Clinton knows how to hold a grudge. In 2001, when the Senate voted to confirm Mr. Chertoff as head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, New York’s junior Senator cast the lone dissenting vote. Two years later, when the Senate voted 88 to 1 to approve Mr. Chertoff’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Mrs. Clinton was again the lone dissenter.
Now, once again, Mrs. Clinton will get to vote on Mr. Chertoff’s future, but her position this time is more complicated. Not only is she considering running for President and wary of taking unpopular positions, but she doesn’t want to rile the man who will control New York’s share of anti-terrorism funding, which has been a pet issue of hers.
The bad blood between Mrs. Clinton and the 51-year-old prosecutor stems from the tangled days when he served as chief counsel to Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s Senate Whitewater investigation committee. For more than two years, he chipped zealously away at the investigation that would ultimately metastasize into the Monica Lewinsky affair. Mr. Chertoff personally delved into the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster. He also chased-and ultimately uncovered-the missing law-firm billing records that led directly to Mrs. Clinton’s testimony before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury.
In the end, Mr. Chertoff’s efforts never produced enough evidence to charge Mrs. Clinton with any criminal wrongdoing in the Whitewater scandal. But Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to forget those years. When Larry King asked her why she was the sole Senator to vote against Mr. Chertoff’s appointment to the federal bench in 2003, Mrs. Clinton responded that it was essentially a protest vote against a man who symbolized “a lot of what was wrong” during the Whitewater era.
“During that time when he was on the staff of the committee in the Senate, a number of young people who worked in the White House were, I thought, very badly treated by the Senate staff investigating Whitewater,” she told Mr. King. “And a number of those people were put under tremendous pressure-legal bills that they had to run up. And I just didn’t think it was handled appropriately or professionally.”
Freeze in the Thaw
Mr. Chertoff’s nomination came just days after Newsweek reported that the relationship between President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton has recently “grown surprisingly warm and personal.” And Mr. Bush’s recent appointment of Mr. Clinton, along with the President’s father, George H.W. Bush, to head up the tsunami fund-raising efforts seemed to further that perception. But the nomination of one of the Clintons’ avowed foes could be seen as a slap in the face, a hostile act that could chill relations again.
“The Republicans don’t like the Clintons, and this is the clearest message possible,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who worked on Mr. Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. “And it certainly doesn’t help in creating a friendship when you do business with somebody who’s the sworn enemy of the person you’re trying to befriend.”
But Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton confidante who was questioned by Mr. Chertoff during the Whitewater hearings, cautioned against reading too much into Mr. Chertoff’s appointment. “I don’t see this as a slap in the face to the Clintons,” he said. “[Mr. Chertoff] is a highly, highly partisan person, but so is Don Rumsfeld and other people. It’s a highly partisan administration.”
Rudy May Still Have Some Clout
Mr. Chertoff’s nomination also plays into the perennial Rudy-vs.-Hillary competition, since Mr. Chertoff was hired by Mr. Giuliani at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the mid-80’s and has contributed to his old boss’ campaign committees. The nomination may demonstrate that Mr. Giuliani hasn’t totally lost his clout with the Bush administration since the Bernie Kerik fiasco. A spokesperson for Mr. Giuliani would not say whether he was consulted on the appointment of Mr. Chertoff, but the former Mayor was quick to release a statement praising Mr. Chertoff as “an excellent choice for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.”
“Obviously, Rudy is not completely tainted to the extent that anyone associated with him is not welcome,” said one Republican political consultant. “But then again, they picked Mike because they know him, they trust him-he was one of [Attorney General John] Ashcroft’s attack dogs. He’s no Bernie Kerik. He’s had a long, distinguished career since working with Rudy.”
Back then, when he was working with Mr. Giuliani at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, Mr. Chertoff prosecuted numerous famous cases, from the “Crazy Eddie” trial to mob indictments involving Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno and Joseph Massino. Thereafter, he worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, rising to U.S. Attorney in that office, where he developed a solid reputation going after corrupt politicians and more wiseguys. Since working at the Justice Department with Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Chertoff has come under fire from liberal groups for defending the Bush administration’s policy of allowing military tribunals for foreign terror suspects and the post-9/11 detention of hundreds of people. As a result, he’s become a favorite of conservative policy groups and has been paid to speak to the Trilateral Commission and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, among others.
Good for New York, Better for Jersey
Mr. Chertoff’s nomination was applauded by Mr. Schumer, who proudly touted the fact that the nominee recognizes New York’s homeland-security needs. But the choice of Mr. Chertoff could prove to be an even bigger boon for New Jersey, Mr. Chertoff’s home state. His wife, Meryl, is a lawyer at Nancy H. Becker Associates, a Trenton-based lobbying firm whose clients include EDS, the giant information-technology services company, which has tens of millions of dollars in contracts with the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, as then-Governor Jim McGreevey’s Washington liaison, she spearheaded efforts to secure homeland-security grants for the state, and she later worked for FEMA during its transition into the Department of Homeland Security.
As a result, the state’s liberal Senators, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, were effusive in their praise of Mr. Chertoff. On the day of the announcement, Mr. Corzine called him “one of the most able people and public servants” he had ever known, and Mr. Lautenberg said that Mr. Chertoff’s anti-terrorism experience will serve the country well.