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White House shamelessly playing Reno for a fool

Janet Reno has phone problems. In May 1996, when the FBI turned up evidence of Chinese government attempts to influence U.S. elections, Reno thought the allegations serious enough to warn the White House. National security adviser Tony Lake never got the word, however. Reno said she couldn't get him on the phone. (And a later FBI briefing of NSC staffers never got beyond the staffers.)

Get that woman a new phone. It now turns out that Reno has trouble not just calling out but receiving. On Oct. 3, Reno released a report exonerating the president's fat-cat White House "coffees." The very next day, the White House counsel's office informed her that at least 44 of them had been videotaped. Yet the White House says it learned of the existence of this potentially important evidence a full three days earlier!Why was she kept in the dark? What happened between Oct. 1 and Oct. 4? Rosh Hashana, explains the White House. Reno could not be reached.

It turns out that White House counsel Charles Ruff met with Reno on Oct. 2 - Rosh Hashana! - and said not a word to her about the tapes.

The brazenness of this whopper is impressive, even by Clinton standards. But the butt of this joke is Reno. The wonder is not her lack of integrity but her lack of awareness. Does she not know how she is being played for the fool? She lacks the elementary self-respect that would prompt any government official so toyed with and humiliated to resign.

Nor is this the first time she has been so used. Take her first opinion rendered on Vice President Al Gore's phone calls from the White House. No violation, she said, because the prohibition against such fund raising does not apply to "soft" money and he was raising soft money. It later turned out that some of Gore's phone dough went to "hard" money accounts. More important, high White House officials - even the president was notified by memo - knew of this money diversion in February 1996. No one ever told Reno. She found out by reading it in The Washington Post.

Now the White House springs the videotapes on her. And what does she do? Carry on, oblivious. She seems unaware of the fact that an attorney general who becomes a doormat for the president whom she is ostensibly investigating, however righteous she may feel about her own motives, has forfeited her authority and usefulness as a public servant.

Reno will now review her previous decision based on the new evidence. But the whole focus of her inquiry is wrong. Her main concern - the famous Gore phone calls - is very small potatoes. While these calls were illegal, and thus an automatic trigger for a special prosecutor, Gore's defenders are right that they hardly constitute a hanging offense.

To reduce the entire corrupt enterprise of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign to a bunch of phone calls is to misunderstand the nature of the scandal. The real question is the mounting evidence of a conspiracy to subvert existing campaign laws.

The very distinction between hard and soft money that Reno finds so riveting in the Gore phone calls was one that the Clinton-Gore campaign was subverting from day one. Mixing accounts. Deceiving donors as to where their money was going (leaving these hapless donors now open to civil fines). Soliciting illegal foreign contributions.

Using state parties to bypass presidential campaign spending limits. The story is not a few phone calls but those who used and directed Charlie Trie and John Huang and the Riadys' munificent gardener and all the others who have fled the country and/or pleaded the Fifth.

The whole enterprise from the beginning - and from the top - was corrupt. Was it illegal? That is what we have prosecutors for - and, when the attorney general is patently incapable of doing the job, special prosecutors.

The second charge that cries out for investigation is obstruction of justice. This White House has a long history of withholding and then miraculously discovering evidence. Remember: The final impetus for a Whitewater independent counsel arose when it was discovered - five months after the fact - that Clinton aides had gone through Vince Foster's office after his suicide and removed materials.

Then we had the materialization of the Rose law firm documents on a table in the living quarters of the White House two years after they were subpoenaed. And now we have the sudden discovery of the White House videotapes. (These were not hidden cameras.) This follows months of missing witnesses, of contradictory testimony, of epidemic memory lapses under oath.

Even if you believe that subverting our baroque campaign laws is not crime enough, you should at least be concerned about obstruction of justice. It's what got Nixon, after all - not the third-rate burglary but the all-out cover-up.