Mr. Clinton's Explanation

NY Times - February 19, 2001

In an article published on The Times's Op-Ed page yesterday, former President Bill Clinton made his case that the pardoning of Marc Rich was a legitimate exercise of a president's constitutional authority, based on sound principles of law and foreign policy. We found that case unconvincing as to the legal and constitutional issues involved and evasive in its failure to explain why Mr. Clinton was discussing Mr. Rich's case with major contributors to his party while he kept the Department of Justice in the dark about his consideration of a pardon for one of the nation's most famous tax fugitives.

On the key point of the role of money in this affair, the former president also asserted that the heavy contributions to his party and library from Mr. Rich's former wife and political advocate, Denise Rich, had no bearing on his decision. In the end, citizens will have to decide whether they believe Mr. Clinton. As for us, we do not find his assertion that there was "absolutely no quid pro quo" involving money to be a satisfactory explanation for the tangle of lobbying, public relations and legal activities depicted in e-mails among Ms. Rich, Beth Dozoretz, a former finance chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel who became Mr. Rich's lawyer.

We do, however, find Mr. Clinton's statement to be a positive step toward a fuller airing of this case. He should apply the same principle of public discussion to other suspect actions, such as the commutation of sentence granted to a California cocaine dealer with political connections and the decision to commute the prison terms of four Hasidic men from New Square, N.Y., whose advocates were campaign supporters of the former president's wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The 1,700- word article started by noting the unilateral and "inherently controversial" nature of the president's pardoning authority. But it seems to us Mr. Clinton actually undermined his position by quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's definition of a presidential pardon as reflecting a judgment that "the public welfare will be better served" by the granting of it.

The public welfare is in every way damaged when the rule of law is disrupted and legal process ignored. That is why the Democratic Congressional leadership and some of Mr. Clinton's former cabinet officers have so thoroughly denounced this pardon. In his article, Mr. Clinton did acknowledge that he should have consulted with Mary Jo White, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, and communicated his intentions earlier to Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general whose reputation has been harmed by the depiction of him as acquiescent to Mr. Clinton's decision in the last hours of his presidency.

The plain fact is that Mr. Rich was an unsuitable candidate for a pardon. He fled the country rather than answer a legitimate summons to court. His wealth enabled him to claim citizenship in other countries and live in luxury abroad and then, with the help of friends and a lawyer with White House connections, to leap to the head of pardon queue. Mr. Clinton conceded that a more typical pardon candidate would be someone who had served a prison sentence and thereafter lived within the law.

Mr. Rich has defied the courts for years, and now he has been rewarded in a way that undermines respect for the law and longstanding Justice Department pardoning procedures. Mr. Clinton's consistent attempt to depict Mr. Rich as the victim of overzealous prosecutors or flawed indictments does not pass legal muster. The place to air those issues is in court, where Americans without millions to spend must face charges without hope of a magical executive intervention. Mr. Clinton also said he was heavily influenced by Israeli officials, who wanted Mr. Rich to be rewarded for his service to their nation and its intelligence service, the Mossad. The former president's candor on this point is welcome. But the precedent he set of blocking American prosecutors and courts as a diplomatic gift rather than for an important national security reason is one that his successors should ignore.

Sometimes, Mr. Clinton argues, a pardon may be granted based on undefined "unique circumstances." The story of this pardon begins and ends with money and the access afforded by money. That is the unique circumstance that will linger in the minds of Americans whenever they contemplate this gross misuse of a solemn presidential responsibility.
See Also:
  • Clinton Pardon Statement Questioned
  • US Jewry Slams Clinton for Blaming Rich Pardon on Jews
  • The Clemency Page