The president told reporters Monday he had taken great pains to avoid talking to Reno so it would not appear that he was trying to influence the Justice Department's investigation of campaign fund-raising abuses.
"I have gone out of my way to have no conversation with her about this or, frankly, anything else, which I'm not sure is so good," Clinton said as he stood in Air Force One's rear press cabin while en route to Brazil, the second stop on his Latin American tour.
Reno has until Wednesday to decide whether to extend her inquiry into fund-raising phone calls from the White House by Clinton, which would be the next step toward possibly seeking an independent counsel.
USA Today reported today that a Justice Department task force will recommend that the review be ended because it had found no credible evidence Clinton violated a law against political solicitations in federal offices.
The newspaper quoted Justice spokesman Bert Brandenberg as saying Reno "has not made any decision" on extending the probe. The newspaper did not cite sources for its story.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Clinton spoke with reporters on the flight Monday in hopes of avoiding being peppered with fund-raising questions during a news conference today with Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in which Clinton would prefer to discuss his first visit here as president.
Clinton appeared in the press cabin suddenly, about two hours into a four-hour flight from Venezuela, where he'd just wrapped a state visit with President Rafael Caldera. Dressed in a short-sleeved navy golf shirt and matching slacks, the president took questions for 30 minutes, occasionally sipping a diet soda and propping his foot on a nearby seat.
Clinton said he would do "anything that is necessary" to provide Reno and the Justice Department with the information they needed for their investigation.
"Including speaking to her?" a reporter asked.
"If she wishes to interview me," Clinton replied.
He was responding to Reno's comment on Sunday that she would "pursue every lead and interview anyone who has information concerning the transactions involved in this whole investigation."
Clinton said he was not upset with Reno, who indicated she was "mad" over the White House's delays in giving investigators copies of videotapes showing coffees Clinton held at the White House with supporters.
"You think she was mad? You should have been there when I heard about it," he said.
Clinton said one of his White House lawyers, Lanny Breuer, "made a mistake" when he failed to immediately tell Reno that the tapes were discovered.
Two congressional committees issued subpoenas months ago for any videotapes of White House political events. The White House said the tapes were discovered Oct. 1, but Justice was not informed until a few days later _ one day after Reno said she had tentatively found no grounds for an independent counsel's investigation into White House coffees.
Reno has said her investigators still were looking at the coffees, overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and the use of government facilities in fund raising, and they may yet find evidence requiring an independent counsel.
The president decried as "completely unwarranted" Republican attacks on Reno's deciding not to seek an independent counsel so far.
"It would be hard to make the case that she was reluctant to follow the law," Clinton said. "There are all kinds of procedures set up about how this law is supposed to operate. And she ought to be left alone to implement it."
In Washington, the head of the White House Military Office, which oversees the unit that videotaped the coffees, took responsibility for the failure to find the tapes earlier. Alan Sullivan disputed suggestions that presidential aides didn't ask his office to search for materials about the coffees last spring when they were first subpoenaed.
Sullivan said Charles Ruff, the White House counsel, had made an explicit request to his office last spring for materials related to the coffees and the failure to search for the tapes was caused by an internal mixup.
"Mr. Ruff's full directive was circulated to each of the elements of the
WHMO," including the unit that handled the tapes, Sullivan said, adding,
"I accept responsibility for the failure to respond completely to Mr.