For the nearly four years that Merrick Garland spent as a top Justice Department official in the 1990s, he had one ultimate boss: Janet Reno.
As Garland prepares to take over the attorney general job, how closely he hews to the Reno model — one that called for keeping extreme distance from the White House, sometimes to a fault — could be highly consequential.
His approach will not only determine his success in calming a department roiled under President Donald Trump, but will also influence a series of politically sensitive questions Garland faces, including deciding how aggressively to investigate Trump and overseeing the resolution of an ongoing probe into President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Under President Bill Clinton, Reno was the only person to hold the post of Senate-confirmed attorney general. The nearly eight years she spent in the job rendered her the second-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history. She was fiercely independent, but — in part for that reason — for many of those years she had a frosty relationship with Clinton, who saw Reno as adding to his administration’s political baggage.
And during those times of Justice Department-White House tensions, Garland played a major role.
Former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, who worked alongside Garland at DOJ, says Reno relied heavily on Garland’s advice. “She always wanted to know what Merrick thought,” Fishman said.
“I know he was very close with Reno and they thought very highly of each other,” added Robert Weiner, a longtime Garland friend who served in the Clinton White House Counsel’s office.
Jamie Gorelick, who was Reno’s deputy from 1994 to 1997 and who hand-picked Garland as her top aide, said Reno also made clear from the outset that she had little desire to interact with the White House.
“She said, ‘I have no interest in going over to the White House for meetings, unless there’s something specific I need to add. I’d really rather have you take care of whatever business we have at the White House,’” Gorelick said. So, Gorelick and Garland became regulars at weekly White House meetings on legally contentious policy issues, like affirmative action.
Clinton White House records also show Garland was on a very short list of Justice Department officials cleared to access the White House complex without an appointment. The records also show that he was careful not to gratuitously ruffle feathers there, making sure that officials like Vice President Al Gore had a first shot at media interviews on hot topics, like security for the Atlanta Olympics.
During Clinton’s first term, Reno triggered the naming of five independent counsels, irking the White House and contributing to public perceptions that the Clinton administration was ethically challenged. One probe, the Whitewater investigation, was focused on the president and his wife, first lady Hillary Clinton. Three probes focused on Cabinet members.
Garland will take office with a special counsel, John Durham, deep into a probe of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation and with a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney investigating financial issues related to Biden’s son Hunter. Garland also faces difficult choices about what sorts of investigations he will authorize into Trump’s conduct, including his alleged obstruction of justice during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and his involvement in the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to an interview request.
Asked what lessons Garland should draw from the Reno era as he begins to work through his to-do list, former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry said not unduly antagonizing the White House is vital.
“Always stay on the president’s good side, even if your department is running an investigation about him,” McCurry said.
Gorelick acknowledged a chilliness descended over the relationship between Reno and the Clinton White House, but she insisted that it derived from the legal framework she faced at the time, not from Reno’s interpersonal skills or social calendar.
The law in place for much of the Clinton era led to court-appointed independent counsels whenever someone leveled a credible allegation that a senior official had broken the law, even for the kind of violation that wouldn’t be prosecuted under DOJ guidelines. The law expired in 1999 amid bipartisan criticism.
Asked about the Reno-Clinton frostiness, Gorelick said: “That didn’t have to do with who was going to visit whom. That had to do with the independent counsel law and how she interpreted it.”
Still, Reno prided herself on independence and rectitude, perhaps to an extreme.
“Janet Reno was a highly principled person, who could at times be reluctant to go along with whatever strategic decision was being reached by the White House,” said Carl Stern, the department’s top spokesperson from 1993 to 1996. “She didn’t go along with too much of this politics stuff…She tried to keep a certain arm’s length between us.”
Reno landed in hot water with the White House early on for rejecting a reinventing government proposal that Gore’s staff was pushing to merge the FBI and DEA. She listened carefully to both sides and rejected the idea.
“That was one of the key tensions. They wanted to do big things,” Stern recalled.
Reno’s independence proved to be both irritating and beneficial to the Clinton White House. While the slew of independent counsels she sought brought political heartburn, her distance from Clinton made it easier for her to weather GOP criticism when she repeatedly declined to appoint one to probe fundraising violations by Democrats during the 1996 presidential race.
That fight would’ve been particularly hard for Garland to miss, both before and after he moved out of his role as Gorelick’s deputy.
Indeed, on the very day the Senate confirmed him to the D.C. Circuit in March 1997, the first order of business was a resolution demanding that Reno seek an independent counsel to investigate reports of illegal fundraising from foreign sources.
The Senate debate came about a month after it was revealed that President Bill Clinton had invited big Democratic donors to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom and that Clinton specifically approved such invites for people who gave $100,000 or more.
The first federal prosecutor Reno tasked with investigating election-related issues said Garland’s role in managing those politically explosive tasks under Reno leaves him well positioned to tackle similar issues now facing the Justice Department.
“It would be impossible that he didn’t learn from what he observed,” said Chuck LaBella, the former U.S. Attorney in San Diego. “I think Reno was good at being attorney general, don’t get me wrong, but I think he’s much better situated.”
LaBella, whom Reno tapped to head up the high-profile campaign finance task force, said Garland comes into the job with much more knowledge of how things work in D.C.
“Garland has a support mechanism in Washington and in the country, because of the experience, that Reno did not have,” said LaBella.
Gorelick recalls that she and Garland each hosted Reno for dinner from time to time. Indeed, Reno was at Garland’s home for a Passover seder on April 3, 1996, when the FBI advised they had arrested Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski and were searching his remote Montana cabin.
“She was at their home for Passover dinner when the FBI called,” Gorelick said. “They called repeatedly with questions about what they could do in terms of searching and the charges….They spent a lot of Passover in his 3rd-floor study….They’re talking to [FBI Director] Louis Freeh. They’re calling me.”
Reno died in 2016 after a struggle with Parkinson’s Disease that she made public in 1995, during her tenure as attorney general.
Garland is now, by any definition, well-connected. After nearly a quarter-century on the bench, he’s no wheeler and dealer. But he has 24-years-worth of law clerks deployed across Washington and around the country who backed him during his unsuccessful 1996 Supreme Court nomination and stand behind him now.
Reno was an outsider from the very beginning. Officially, she was Clinton’s third choice for the job, after his initial picks, Zoe Baird and Judge Kimba Wood, withdrew following revelations that they had employed undocumented nannies. In reality, Reno was even further down the list, after he mulled possibilities such as Judge Patricia Wald, Brooksley Born and others.
“She was plucked from another environment,” LaBella recalled. “The current candidate is plucked from the federal system….He’s not going to have any learning curve.”